Book review, children's literature, Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman –

Among the candidates for award for the best opening line to a children’s novel, this has got to be in with a shout:

“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. if it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to the house to do , and both the blade and the handle were wet.”

Pretty chilling stuff. ‘The Graveyard Book’ opens with the murder of the parents and sister of a young child, Bod (short for Nobody) who escapes the attacker and ends up in a graveyard. Here he is protected, and eventually brought up by, the ghosts and other phantasmical creatures that live there. I have read that this book draws inspiration from Kipling’s ‘The Jungle Book’. That makes sense – young child brought up by non-humans, gradually comes into contact with the outside world and learns its strange ways, all the while menaced by the killer who claimed the lives of his family, and finally getting his revenge. But to be honest the parallel was not all that obvious when reading this book. Gaiman may borrow the structure of ‘The Jungle Book’, but he makes the material entirely his own. In part that comes from the supernatural element, which he has a lot of fun with. All the ghosts are introduced by their gravestone inscriptions, (“She sleeps, aye, yet she sleeps with angels” or simply “son of the above”) and their lives and deaths all form part of their characters. But Gaiman also adopts a much darker tone for the novel – whether it be in the real menace provided by the murders of Bod’s family, the repeated further attempts on his life, or the sad fate of some of the graveyard’s inhabitants.

‘The Graveyard Book’ will appeal most to pre-teens with a taste for the macabre and supernatural, but there is plenty of interest for all readers, not least (in this Bloomsbury edition) the wonderful illustrations by Chris Riddell. Personally what I enjoyed most, and what I suspect was the original inspiration for the novel, was the extraordinary sense of place. The graveyard itself is really the central character of the book, and Gaiman recreates and imagines it in wonderful detail – I find it hard to imagine that it is not based on a real location. Some novels start with a location, a setting, which then become the backdrop for a series of adventures. In using this approach, in which the majority of the events of the novel are set within the confines of the graveyard itself, Gaiman ran the risk of the whole thing becoming quite claustrophobic, but overcomes this by breaking free from time to time, and by exploring the graveyard itself as if it is Bod’s whole world. Because he spends all his time with ghosts, Bod is utterly unafraid of death, and sees nothing to worry about in the fact someone is determined to murder him. The other principal achievement of the novel is in its creation of a set of villains – the Jacks of All Trades – a sinister, other worldly conspiracy – that are genuinely scary.