The Graveyard Book

Reviewed: June 10, 2009
By: Neil Gaiman / illustrations by Dave McKean
Publisher: Harper Collins
320 pages, $19.50

Neil Gaiman will be the Guest of Honour at the 67th World Science Fiction Convention (or Worldcon) in Montreal this August. I’m looking forward to hearing whatever panel discussions he takes part in. By coincidence his latest young adult novel, The Graveyard Book, is also in the running to pick up the Hugo Award for the best novel of 2008.

Because my wife and I are fully paid up delegates to this year’s convention I recently received a Hugo packet containing electronic versions of almost every piece of work that will be voted on in the various categories.

It’s a daunting bundle of material, more stuff than I would ever have time to read in the slightly less than two months I have remaining before the trip, but Gaiman’s book was one I wanted to read right away, because of the attention it has already received.

In January it was announced that The Graveyard Book had won the Newberry Medal, which is presented to an author “for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature” in any given year, not actually something one would expect for a genre book that begins with the words, “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.”

That’s how chapter one, “How Nobody Came to the Graveyard” begins. Nobody is the name the residents of the graveyard, a motley collection of ghosts and other supernatural creatures, give to the boy, barely a toddler, who had wandered out of his home and into their place on the night that the man Jack murdered his parents and his sister.

Jack pursued his quarry to the graveyard, but was thwarted in his murderous intent by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, a childless ghost couple who respond to the pleas of the boy’s recently deceased mother and offer him their protection when she can’t. The deal is sealed by the actions of Silas, a vampire, who, being neither dead nor alive, agrees to be the boy’s guardian and diverts the man Jack in a manner which would have done Obi Wan Kenobi proud.

The book covers the next 12 or so years in the life of the boy, who comes to be called Nobody, or Bod, by his extended supernatural family. The boy is raised by a community of ghosts, a vampire and a werewolf and given the freedom of the graveyard, which means that he is taught certain physical abilities (fading, ease of access, intangibility) as well as some mental/mystical arts.

There are several adventures during his childhood, including a friendship with a normal girl for a while, but they all lead to the confrontation of his 15th year, during which the man Jack returns to finish what he began.

This is a delightfully creepy little story, told in that omniscient author’s voice which Gaiman was using even before Lemony Snicket. His version of this voice ismore confiding and less melodramatic, more like someone telling you an fascinating tale and stopping along the way to explain a few things.

Dave McKean has worked with Gaiman on a number of projects and turns in some really neat atmospheric sketches between the chapters for this book. These really do advance the story, which has an upbeat ending.