I shouldn’t be surprised that Neil Gaiman’s latest offering, The Graveyard Book, is as good as it is. Many moons ago, when he and Terry Pratchett wrote Good Omens (which I’d also suggest you read), they captured the kids to a “T.” These weren’t a bunch of adults trapped in little bodies, nor were they a bunch of one-dimensional hellions. Nearly twenty years later, Gaiman delivers a book that’s properly “for” kids, though it’d be short-sighted to dismiss it as “just” kiddie lit. Adam Young, meet Nobody (“Bod”) Owens.
Much has been made of the book’s genesis in, and parallels with, Kipling’s Jungle Book, and the English major in me could probably while away the better part of an afternoon finding the parallels between the two. I’ll leave that to the folks over on Amazon, likewise leaving them their complaints that Kipling did it better. So much in literature–whether for adults or kids–cannibalizes so much of what came before that it seems silly sometimes to point out that really, Kipling did Kipling better. There’s satisfaction enough in reading The Graveyard Book on its, and its author’s, own merits.
The book opens with the murders of three people. This takes place off-camera, in a manner of speaking, with an indirectness and discretion that could’ve been lifted whole from Hitchcock. Like Hitchcock, Gaiman leaves all the right things to the imagination, with an end result that gives more of a fright than it would’ve had he been more explicit. Then the infant who toddles away from the bloodbath ends up in a graveyard, sparking a debate over his fate ’til finally, Death herself decrees that the child should be allowed to live, raised by the mostly dead residents of the graveyard. The remainder of the book is a series of set pieces from different times in Nobody Owens’s life, each a new adventure and new lesson learned. As the stories unfold, then converge, the reader watches Bod grow first into his unique abilities, and then into his humanity, ’til he’s able to wear both comfortably.
While this is Bod’s coming-of-age story, in some sense it’s also about the growth of the graveyard’s other, long-dead personae. We don’t just watch Bod’s growth, we see the denizens of the graveyard come a bit more into themselves along the way as well. The Owenses, childless in life, learn parenting on the fly, and many of the others–besides Silas, Bod’s vampire guardian, there’s a motley collection of aristocrats, teachers, kids, a poet and even a stray witch–are left subtly changed even as they leave their mark on their young charge. True, we come to know and love Bod as the story unfolds; but the story’s end, when it comes, wouldn’t have the same poignancy or emotional heft had the author not also put considerable care into fleshing out (pardon the pun) the story’s other inhabitants.
Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t remember fiction for kids reading quite like this when I was of an age to read it. I mean, there must have been something out there beyond the few books of age-appropriate fiction I’d read and liked, but so much of it seemed… soft to me. And by “soft,” I mean in the sense that someone had filed down all the sharp edges and gotten rid of the untidy bits. They had, in other words, taken anything that might have rendered the work true to life out, leaving behind only the bland and inoffensive parts. That’s not to say that Gaiman sets out to offend, or that there’s anything even mildly objectionable to The Graveyard Book; but the author isn’t afraid to leave in all the untidiness of life, the awkwardness of growing up, and the mundane magic that comes from the discovery of the extraordinary ordinary through which we come into our own. There’s a lot to be said for the fact that the book’s best moments don’t come from Bod’s powers as someone with the Freedom of the Graveyard, but rather from the times he’s just being an ordinary kid–albeit often in some very extraordinary circumstances.
There’s nothing here to indicate that The Graveyard Book is one of a series, but as the book comes to a close, you rather hope that there will be more of Bod’s adventures to be told, or that Silas, his protector, might take someone else under his wing. It’s a deceptive book in its own way, small only from the outside; once you’re in, it’s an expansive, generous story. And yes, there are lessons to be learned here. But the lessons are delivered quietly, almost slyly, by a series of careful accidents rather than from a pulpit.