Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Originally published in 2008, The Graveyard Book is another exclamation point in Neil Gaiman’s bibliography, continuing the theme of ordinary protagonists who find themselves in extraordinary (and fantastical) circumstances. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, you’ll find this novel to be a charming little tale regardless of whether or not you’ve read Gaiman before. Just don’t go in expecting your typical ghost/vampire/werewolf story (though all three are present), as Mr. Gaiman is English, and they’re a bit more refined than that, thank you very much. This review will consider the three major elements of any novel: plot, characters, and narrative.

Plot

The Graveyard Book reads like a collection of short stories. Each chapter acts almost like a standalone story, culminating into the overarching story of the protagonist Nobody Owens (Bod, for short). Bod is a boy who grows up in a graveyard, raised by a family of ghosts and an otherworldly guardian named Silas. The best summary comes from Mr. Gaiman and the title itself: think The Jungle Book but with a graveyard instead of a jungle.

A mystery is set up in the very beginning (who killed Bod’s family and why?), and lingers throughout the book, though it is barely mentioned again until the very end. Luckily, Bod finds himself in a few novel adventures in between the first and last pages. Here Mr. Gaiman flexes his literary muscles, spinning a few yarns that are short and sweet. From being taken to the city of ghouls to getting trapped in a pawn shop, Mr. Gaiman’s ideas are highly imaginative and an entertaining distraction from the initial plot point. The world that The Graveyard Book takes place in is familiar enough for us to recognize, but concealing just enough to inspire wonder.

The graphic novel is definitely worth checking out. Absolutely gorgeous.
The graphic novel is definitely worth checking out. Absolutely gorgeous drawings.

Characters

I’ve never read or seen The Jungle Book, so the person Bod reminded me of was Tarzan. He is a boy who has grown up outside of human contact and society. However, thanks to his guardians he is raised to be knowledgeable, independent, and possessing of a good nature. His primary appeal as our protagonist is his inquisitive and innocent personality. He asks the right questions, and despite the situations he finds himself in, he maintains both a positive attitude and an optimistic outlook. There is indeed something dull about a goody-goody character, but somehow Bod isn’t quite like that. He makes mistakes, and gets angry, even if it’s once or twice, but that’s enough to humanize him and make him our hero.

One of the more popular characters from the book is Silas, the vampire who is Bod’s primary caretaker. I think the reason readers immediately like Silas, outside of the fact that he is a cool and brooding vampire, is Gaiman’s delicate treatment of him. Every scene with Silas offers just a teensy tiny hint on who Silas is and what his motivations are. Because we want to find out more about him, we’re excited every time Silas shows up on the page. How much does he know? What are his powers? Why is he helping Bod? Even so, this is all secondary to Gaiman’s portrayal of Silas. Silas’s descriptions and actions do a great job at bringing the character to life both directly and indirectly. I remember the part that especially stuck out for me was the description of Silas’ travel bag. This isn’t word for word, but it was “black, classy, the type of the bag that could’ve only belonged to Silas”, just like how Silas “wasn’t the type of person to be hugged”. What elevates Gaiman as a great writer, as opposed to just being good, is that he knows how to use indirect means to tell us who someone is or what’s going on.

Silas. What a great name to say out loud. Silas.
Silas–What a great name to say out loud. Silas.

In between, we have a cast of delightful characters. From the endearing ghosts of centuries past, to the wily Liza Hempstock, to the bullies Nick and Mo, Gaiman has filled his wonderful world with wonderful characters, each with their own personalities and purpose within the story. A good cast of characters helps to bring the world to life, and every single one seems to belong right where they are.

Narrative

Mr. Gaiman’s voice is efficient and a pleasure to read, as per the norm, being plain and to the point, sprinkled with beautiful descriptions and similes. Perhaps the reason this is so is because Gaiman’s preferred subject matter is the fantastic and otherworldly, and his prose is more than equal to the task of articulating such ideas.

The way Gaiman tells his stories is reminiscent of a fairy tale or lullaby. It’s soothing and calm, but there are some pretty nasty things waiting under the bed or in the forest. I’ve read many of his books, and have become familiar with his style of narration. It is nice to read an author who doesn’t try to show off his vocabulary, while at the same time be capable of communicating complex ideas and emotions with basic words. This is how Gaiman uses the English language, and his mastery in the art of storytelling is due primarily to his modesty as a writer.

The Jacks of all Trades. Clever way of taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar.
The Jacks of all Trades. Clever way of taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar.

In Conclusion…

A highly imaginative distraction that is well-written and entertaining. Varied and lively characters carry this story throughout, leading all the way to the best kind of ending: a bittersweet one.

There is a novel as well as a graphic novel for this story. I read the graphic novel first, though you can’t go wrong with either. Both of them effectively draw you in to the same story, so it may be a case of whether or not you prefer a blank slate or having some of the world and characters imagined for you. I found the graphic novel to be just as equally engaging as any regular novel, and my reading of the text was not in any way spoiled by the comic.

Some may be tempted to label this as a children’s book, given its simple and playful nature, but I think this is a book any reader of fantasy will enjoy. The prose treats you like an adult, and stretches your imagination rather comfortably. I recommend it as a snack for any literary bookworms, and for anyone being introduced to Neil Gaiman, this is a great first book to see what he’s all about. By story’s end, he may just convince you to look twice while strolling in a graveyard.

This has been a gamobo review.

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