Friday, September 4, 2009

The Graveyard Book

I've been struggling with this review for a week. After the awards Neil Gaiman has garnered for this novel, I was looking forward to another entry in the fine list of thoughtful, well-written books from him, and to be honest, on that score I was not disappointed. The story of Nobody Owens begins with the murder of his parents and continues with his being raised in a graveyard by ghosts from various historical periods, a vampire and a werewolf. Given the "Freedom of the Graveyard," Bod is able to interact physically with the ghosts, and he is also trained in stereotypical frightening techniques: fading from view, installing fear, and walking through other people's dreams. It is a fascinating idea, giving Gaiman free reign to do the legend-making he is so adept at.

And he does build some interesting folklore. There's the Jacks of All Trades, an ancient society made up of men named Jack, intent on…well, it's never really clear what their goals are. What we do know, however, is that they have a prophecy (don't all ancient societies?) that indicates to them that Bod will lead to the destruction of their order, and so he must die. Note however, that while this society is hinted at, it is only really developed towards the end of the novel, and this explanation of their activities is tossed off pretty quickly in the course of the biggest action sequence in the novel. Opposing the Jacks is an even more secret society of werewolves, vampires, mummies and other fabled creatures named The Honour Guard. Silas, one of the members of The Honour Guard, is a vampire who has been named Bod's guardian, since he is the only denizen of the graveyard that can be corporeal outside its boundaries. Silas's regular disappearances appear mysterious and dark until he reveals that he has spent the entire book fighting the Jacks in their locations around the world. But most of this conflict takes place offstage and the reader only learns of it towards the end of the novel. The whole conflict just screams out for more books and stories detailing their ages-long battle.

The weakness is that the novel makes no bones about being a children's book (even calling it "young adult" is a stretch), and so there is not a lot of depth to the proceedings. There lurks some undercurrents of bigger things as the story goes on, but they are never really dealt with significantly, since exploring those unhappy ideas would cause the novel to stray beyond the boundaries of its age group. For instance, while Bod's parents are murdered within the first few pages of the book, Gaiman slips humor into the narrative when it could be its most terrifying, diffusing the darkness with his description of Bod as a toddler making his way across town and into the graveyard. Most of the book is spent describing Bod growing up, narrating a few interesting adventures in his life at the graveyard: meeting a witch, making living friends, and trying to go to school as a "normal" kid. These adventures really act as chapter-long anecdotes, scribing the arc of a fairly standard coming-of-age story with a fantastical setting.

But each of the stories also contributes a key element to the crisis of the novel and its resolution: Bod seeking revenge for the murder of his parents. In some ways, those passages just highlight the fluffiness of the previous chapters, but the chase scenes, while somewhat suspenseful, seriously understate the seriousness of Bod's predicament. In rather short order, Bod succeeds with the nonchalance of Tom Swift a more recent child savant, Wesley Crusher. It is terrifically fun and satisfying as it happens, but diminishes somewhat in reflection. And then to maintain a sort of childish innocence, Bod's revenge does not actually end up in the death of any of his pursuers; granted they are all disposed of in potentially guilelessly horrible ways—the unknown is far worse than the known, even if it includes the possibility of escape.

The result of all this is a fun read, not requiring a lot of thought for adults unless they are in the company of a child seeking explanation. Gaiman does offer an interesting point of view for a child entering society with his metaphor of a child raised by the dead entering the world of the living. But he doesn't push those issues too far, just evoking the emotional highlights, enough to prepare children for the difficulties of social interaction in their lives to come and to offer adults wistful reminders of their entry into the larger community. The characters are lightly drawn and the narration and voices all evoke some whimsy, even when Bod is in the most danger. The Graveyard Book is a worthy addition to Gaiman's burgeoning reputation as a great storyteller, leaving this reader wanting more stories from this same world but written for a slightly older audience.

1 comment:

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