Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman

I found a bunch of reasons (none of them good ones, as it turned out) to resist reading Neil  Gaiman's Neverwhere.  What is it -- science fiction, or fantasy, or a kids' book of some sort?  No thanks.  Within the first five minutes of listening to the audio book, I was glued to the MP3 player for the duration.  Mr. Gaiman is one of a handful of authors who is brilliant at reading his own works aloud.  He's got a terrific range of voices, whether his characters are alive or dead, human or not, or some combination of the above.

I read The Graveyard Book in print;  it's whimsical and morbid and thoroughly delightful.  (Note: The Independent voted it one of the 20 Best Audio Books, with the author narrating.) As the tale begins, a man named Jack has killed a father, mother and one child with his razor-sharp, bone-handled knife, and he's on his way up the stairs to dispatch the toddler.  Just in time, said infant toddles out of his crib, out of the house, and over to the nearby graveyard, thwarting Jack and throwing the cemetery's inhabitants into a tizzy.  Mrs. Owens, who departed this life some centuries before, is the first to find him.  She summons Mr. Owens.  "Strike me silly," said Mr. Owens, "if that isn't a baby."

Mrs. Owens, being the warm, fuzzy, maternal sort of spirit, lobbies to keep the child and raise him in the cemetery.  Others, including Caius Pompeius (who came to Britain during the Roman days and liked the roads very much), raise the obvious problems with raising a living child in the cemetery.  The terrified and newly dead spirit of the child's mother begs the ghosts to save her baby, startling the Owenses half to death. Or whatever.
You might think -- and if you did, you would be right -- that Mr. Owens should not have taken on so at seeing a ghost, given that Mr. and Mrs. Owens were themselves dead and had been for a few hundred years now, and given that the entirety of their social life, or very nearly, was spent with those who were also dead. 

With a sly wink in Hillary Clinton's direction, Mr. Gaiman shares with us one sage spirit's opinion about raising orphaned, living children.
"For good or for evil -- and I firmly believe that it is for good -- Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will," said Silas, "take a graveyard."

What to name him?  Every ghost in the place thinks he resembles some relative or ancestor of his, so Mrs. Owens puts her foot down and names him Nobody.  Nobody Owens, or Bod for short.  He is given the free run of the cemetery, tutored in various subjects by various ghosts, and briefly befriends a little girl, Scarlett, whose parents bring her to the graveyard to frolic out of doors.  When she tells her parents of her new friendship with Bod, they smile indulgently and tell each other that having imaginary friends is normal for a child of Scarlett's age.  Meanwhile, she tells Bod that her father teaches particle physics, or at least he does so when they can find enough people who want to learn it.
"What's particle physics?" asked Bod.
Scarlett shrugged. "Well," she said. "There's atoms, which is things that is too small to see, that's what we're all made of. And there's things that's smaller than atoms, and that's particle physics."
Bod nodded and decided that Scarlett's father was probably interested in imaginary things.  

One day Miss Lupescu arrives at the cemetery to tutor young Bod, bringing with her containers of beet soup with dumplings.  Bod is keen on neither her food nor her didactic methods. He protests.
"I have teachers. Letitia Borrows teaches me writing and words, and Mr. Pennyworth teaches me his Compleat Educational System for Younger Gentlemen with Additional Material for Those Post Mortem. I do geography and everything. I don't need more lessons."

Miss Lupescu is not impressed.
"Name the different kinds of people," said Miss Lupescu. "Now."
Bod thought for a moment. "The living," he said. "Er. The dead." He stopped. Then, "...Cats?"
"You are ignorant, boy," said Miss Lupescu. "This is bad. And you are content to be ignorant, which is worse. Repeat after me, there are the living and the dead, there are day-folk and night-folk, there are ghouls and mist-walkers, there are the high hunters and the Hounds of God. Also, there are solitary types."
"What are you?" asked Bod.
"I," she said sternly, "am Miss Lupescu."

Miss Lupescu proceeds to teach Bod how to call for help in every language, not limited to those spoken by living humans.  This proves to be a surprisingly useful bit of memorisation, and Bod's opinion of Miss Lupescu's knowledge (if not of her cooking) goes up. The Graveyard Book lifted my already fond opinion of Neil Gaiman to new levels, too.


  1. The Graveyard Book is good, but it is nowhere nearly as epic as American Gods novel or the Sandman graphic novels. Those are phenomenal! Love Neil Gaiman!

  2. Thanks for the review. It sounds like something really up my alley, haha! I am going to read this next! And we do have American Gods in our Kindle library, too! ;)

  3. "The Graveyard Book" is a beautifully written, bittersweet coming-of-age tale with some moments of pure creepiness. A magnificent fantasy story, which is not to be missed.

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