The Graveyard Book: A Review
From the title on down, this novel is "The Jungle Book," but dead.

Whereas "The Jungle Book" is vibrant, terrifying, meaty, pulsing, and passionate, Neil Gaiman's "The Graveyard Book" is subdued, light, insubstantial, diffident, and chilly. The difference between the two books is the difference between the tiger and the ghost of the tiger.

But which one is more magical, you may ask? Which one is more terrifying? The tiger or her spirit?

Comparisons here add little to our understanding, even though Gaiman practically demands that we make them as a result of his brazen gambit, staging Kipling in a graveyard and casting ghosts, vampires, and ghouls instead of wolves, tigers, and monkeys.

More interesting than comparisons are the questions that his narrative decision provokes. Are we not more obsessed these days by ghosts than by primal hunters? Don't we occupy a more quiet world, a world of deadened senses and soft mosses, where we are haunted and yet nurtured by all that has come before us? Is there any place left in the world that is not more like a graveyard than a jungle?

What haven't we killed? What have we left alive?

And what can we learn from the dead?


"You wonder why the children of America are so obsessed with death? You wonder why rock groups that look like corpses and zombie comic-book heroes are so goddamn popular here? It's just the same way your Victorians loved their tombs and seances and murders. The American Empire is dead and does not know it. Like [the British] Empire before it, it's only aware of it in its sleep." -- Grant Morrison, The Invisibles

"The Graveyard Book" is the story of a young orphan who is rechristened Nobody Owens ("Bod") after his family is murdered by a man called Jack and he is adopted by a ghostly couple in his local graveyard.

Jack is a typical Gaimannered villain. You know the sort: immortal anthropomorphic concepts saddled with ancient pathology, magic, and workaday, tea-drinking evil.

A man named Silas offers to be Nobody's caretaker and protect him from Jack's malice. Silas is a physical being unlike the rest of the graveyard's inhabitants, although he is one of those who are technically neither living nor dead. However, he can leave to procure books and food for Nobody, instructing him on the ways of the world while simultaneously protecting him from harm and rescuing him from deadly perils.

Like "The Jungle Book," each chapter tells its own story. There is a space of two years between each vignette. Unlike "The Jungle Book," each chapter follows the central character closely instead of drifting off into ancillary fables. Therefore, some of the most famous parts of "The Jungle Book" don't have a direct analog in this novel, such as Kipling's story of Riki-Tiki-Tavi or the bit about the elephant seals.

Perhaps these untold stories will appear soon in a companion piece, and then the whole work can be synthesized, complete with epitaph poems, advice for dealing with extreme bereavement, and instructions for settling the spirits of the restless departed. "The Jungle Book" is well-known for serving as the impetus for the modern scouting movement. Is anybody up for Ghost Scouts? Motto: be die.


To promote his book, Gaiman traveled the country and read a different chapter in nine different locations. You can watch him read the whole book aloud here:

Chapter 1: "How Nobody Came to the Graveyard"
Chapter 2: "The New Friend"
Chapter 3: "The Hounds of God"
Chapter 4: "The Witch's Headstone"
Chapter 5: "Danse Macabre"
INTERLUDE: "The Convocation"
Chapter 6: "Nobody Owens' School Days"
Chapter 7 (Part 1): "Every Man Jack, Part 1"
Chapter 7 (Part 2): "Every Man Jack, Part 2"
Chapter 8: "Leavings and Partings"


Nobody is like Gaiman's other heroes, a minor-key cipher with untapped powers that keep him balanced yet befuddled, struggling to come to terms with the bigger questions of love and belonging, gifted with existential certainty. He occupies a privileged side-world of truth deeper than the metaphysics to which the rest of us are allowed access. Like Dream from "The Sandman," and Shadow from "American Gods," he is a creature torn between the power of the past and the promise of the present, navigating the deep architecture of fable in order to overcome modern obstacles.

The ghosts of Nobody's graveyard have taught him to fade into invisibility and possess the dreams of the living. He knows for certain there is life after death, and knows for certain what shape it takes. But when will he learn self-possession?

"Silas said, "Out there, the man who killed your family is, I believe, still looking for you, still intends to kill you."

Bod shrugged. "So?" he said. "It's only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead."

"Yes." Silas hesitated. "They are. And they are, for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you're dead, it's gone. Over. You've made what you've made, dreamed your dream, written your name. You may be buried here, you may even walk. But that potential is finished."

Bod thought about this. It seemed almost true, although he could think of exceptions -- his parents adopting him, for example. But the dead and the living were different, he knew that, even if his sympathies were with the dead."

When Nobody becomes somebody, he stops being safe. A body can be killed, but more importantly, a body must have a reason to live.


One must keep in mind at all times that this is a novel meant for children, otherwise one's expectations will be too high and one will be sadly disappointed by what Gaiman provides. Gaiman's finest terrors, fancies, and myth-making are not on display here. The book is clever and clean, without getting too deep or dragging on for too long. Because this is a children's story, "The Graveyard Book" often feels like Gaiman is writing while sitting on one hand. Gaiman does his best work on a canvas of bone, dipping his brush into buckets of blood and painting pictures of eternal suffering, made beautiful by eternal story. This is not such a work. But it may be Gaiman's most accessible story to those who are unfamiliar with him.

Soon enough, Gaiman might produce a lengthy work of moody British genius to rival Barker's "Imagica" or Peake's "Gormenghast." He's certainly got the talent. One hopes the success of this book doesn't convince Gaiman that his real talent lies in creating minor fairy tales. When exceptionally imaginative dark fantasists write for children, it always feels like court-ordered penance, like seeing your favorite drug-addicted rock musicians do public service announcements about how you should get your car inspected or spend more quality time with your elderly relatives.

The best parts of this book are the departures from Kipling, the parts where Gaiman tells his own story and his world begins to take on its own life beyond the equipment of the concept. It is interesting to imagine the post-modern mash-up that occurs inside a graveyard. Death is the world's great equalizer, where the high and the low are forced to share common ground, and where historical periods must mingle to teach us about the frailty of every epoch.

In my favorite chapter, and perhaps the best stand-alone episode, Gaiman's eternal muse, Death herself, makes her cameo appearance. In this section -- "Danse Macabre" -- the villagers of "Old Town" and the inhabitants of the graveyard come together for a joined evening of revelry, the living partnering with the dead in a ritual dance as old as marriage.

Children no longer fear wild animals. Indeed, they identify with them, being also creatures of natural vitality thrust into a world of decay and "human" ways. We have mastered the jungle and erected tombstones of knowledge where we have deleted the inhabitants.

But children have other paralyzing fears these days. Death is alien to our culture and yet surrounds us like animated mist. To make children comfortable with death, to encourage them to commune with the spirits of the departed and to comfort them with the knowledge that the separation between the here and the gone is temporary -- this is no small feat.

Gaiman's novel is a soothing towel on the forehead of an ashen, fevered rugrat who wants to know what it all means.

"Last dance!" someone called, and the music skirled up into something stately and slow and final.

Each of the dancers took a partner, the living with the dead, each to each. Bod reached out his hand and found himself touching fingers with, and gazing into the grey eyes of, the lady in the cobweb dress.

She smiled at him.

"Hello, Bod," she said.

"Hello," he said, as he danced with her. "I don't know your name."

"Names aren't really important," she said.

"I love your horse. He's so big! I never knew horses could be that big."

"He is gentle enough to bear the mightiest of you away on his broad back, and strong enough for the smallest of you as well."

"Can I ride him?" asked Bod.

"One day," she told him, and her cobweb skirts shimmered. "One day. Everybody does."


"I promise."

We are all going to die. Might as well dance. Or better yet, read a book.

Posted by miracle on Tue, 25 Aug 2009 12:57:36 -0400 -- permanent link

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