Monday, July 12, 2010

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

Published: October 1st 2008 by HarperCollins
Word Count: 67,380
Source: audio book

My Grade: A+

Synopsis from GoodReads: After the grisly murder of his entire family, a toddler wanders into a graveyard where the ghosts and other supernatural residents agree to raise him as one of their own.

This story is about a boy named Nobody Owens, Bod for short. He is raised by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, a dead couple whose graves are in the graveyard that Bod wanders into after the murder of his family. Throughout the book Bod meets and befriends lots of formerly living people who live in the graveyard. But it is never, as far as I can remember, mentioned that they are ghosts, or even spirits. It is clear that their bones lie in the ground and that they each have a headstone with their name, birth and death dates, and short epitaphs on them, but they are simply referred to as ‘the dead.’ I think this is an important distinction, because these are the people Bod lives amongst. So to him, they are not ghosts. They are simply non-living people. They are the dead.

Furthermore, Gaiman successfully presents an inquisitive infant/toddler and then a thoughtful 5 year old as Bod grows. It seems like it would be hard to depict the mind of a toddler accurately or even logically, but the light-hearted tone of the piece makes you not mind it so much as a reader. Indeed, having a main character who is younger than your target audience for a large portion of the book is always considered risky (because kids don't generally want to read about characters younger than them) but Gaiman manages to not only pull it off, but endear the reader to the little protagonist in the process.

Despite the grim or gloomy premise, the book is actually delightful. It has a certain playful quality which might be present to indicate Bod's youthful age, especially in the first half of the book. It may also be present because of the way in which Gaiman reads it, and I have seen this remarked on various websites as well.

Speaking of – what's deliciously delightful about the audio book is that it is read by the author, and he does a fabulously enjoyable job. Also, it's great to hear Gaiman read it, because you know the exact tone of the piece and can gain another level of meaning through voice inflection. In essence what the dialogue is 'really' supposed to sound like (or at least how the author envisioned it sounding). You can gain so much meaning and subtext from the way things are said, and not just from what is said. This is one of the most unique qualities of books - that we all interpret what we read differently based on our own imaginations filling in around what's on the printed page. And I like being a little bit closer to the way the author truly envisioned it by hearing him read his work. I think listening to him read had increased my enjoyment of the story. Another enjoyable experience gained from listening to the audio book is the musical intro and ending to each CD. This music is the danse macabre, an eery little folk tune strummed on banjo and a bit of violin as well. It also gives the listener a very clear idea as to what it might have sounded like at the part in the book when the living and the dead gather together on one night to 'dance the macabre.' (pronounced MAC-a-bray).

Notable Feature:

       Very episodic. Save for a few details, each chapter could pass as a self-contained short story. In fact,     Gaiman published one of the chapters as such in a book of short stories before The Graveyard Book came out. While some critics fault this method of storytelling in books and movies as a lack of skill or a shortcoming on the part of the creator, I am partial to it. I am only against it when the 'episode' does not contribute to either our understanding of the characters and their world, or to the over-arching storyline. Unfortunately this happens a lot, especially in television shows. But it does not happen here.

Favorite quote:

       Silas is Bod’s mentor in the graveyard. He is a mysterious person, described only as neither alive nor dead. I love how Gaiman uses action to portray Silas’s enigmatic and ominous character traits here:

       “Silas began to call the boy back. Then he stopped, and stood there in the night, alone. At the best of times his face was unreadable. Now his face was a book written in a language long forgotten. In an alphabet unimagined. Silas wrapped the shadows around him like a blanket, and stared after the way the boy had gone. And did not move to follow.” (Disc 5 track 4 5:14-5:40).

At first I didn’t think the title fit the book very well. Yes, the story is set in a graveyard but it’s not about a graveyard. It just seemed a bit too general. Then I watched a YouTube video of the author explaining how he got the idea for the book, and he also explained that title is in homage to The Jungle Book, which is also about a boy taken in and raised by unconventional creatures in an unconventional environment. When looked at in this light – in comparison to The Jungle Book – The Graveyard Books suddenly seems a less strange and more classic concept.

Despite the central conflict ending favorably for our young protagonist, the ending is still bittersweet. It could be described as a type of fall from innocence, in the literary sense of the term. A young character departing from the only thing he has ever known in order to discover the reality of life and living. But to do this he must give up almost entirely that which he has known, and yet it is not as sad and devastating to him as it perhaps is to us, the reader. Bod is ultimately excited to embark on a new adventure and take part in experiencing life. Maybe if I was a teenager reading this book I would feel more the way Bod feels at the end too. But even only having ten years on the character, I still see him from the perspective of Mistress Ownes, his mother, and am sad to see him leave the comfort of his home. I am also sad to see him loose his unique abilities, the ones that have allowed him to live comfortably in the graveyard, like fading and slipping through locked doors and the ability to see in darkness. But the loss of these abilities is symbolic of his growth and his entrance into the living world. Which, in a sense, is an allegory for what we all must do – become a part of functioning society as we mature. And just like Bod, it is something we are so eager to do when we are young.

There are a lot of unanswered questions by the end, or loopholes in the central conflict. Why did the Jacks think Bod was the boy who would fulfill the prophecy? Why was his family on their radar when they were looking out for who it would be? It’s a bit cliché that the reason for the conflict comes down to a prophecy, but I shouldn’t talk because that’s what happens in my book too.

Find it on Amazon:  The Graveyard Book 

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