Friday, August 28, 2009

Review: Neil Gaiman, "The Graveyard Book"

I'll be honest and tell you off the top that I'd probably read the phone book if it had Neil Gaiman's name on the cover. So, yes, I'm a bit of a fanboy. But there's a reason. He's never disappointed, and "The Graveyard Book" is no different.

The book returns to the character of Nobody Owens, first introduced in the short story "The Witch's Headstone" which appears as a chapter in this book. Bod's parents were killed by a strange assailant when he was a toddler, but the boy managed to escape the killer and make it to safety in an odd place -- a nearby graveyard. After much debate, Bod is taken in and given the freedom of the graveyard by its ghostly inhabitants, two of which -- the Owenses -- are a couple that always wanted a child but never had one in life. The ghosts aren't the only inhabitants of the cemetery, though. Bod also finds a guardian named Silas, who is somewhere between the living and the dead and is keeping a secret about Bod.

"The Witch's Headstone" introduced readers to this unusual scenario, and while entertaining on its own, raised many questions about how things worked and how it came to be. This book fleshes the story out, beginning with the murders and carrying Bod into his teenage years. Along the way, the strange boy has a number of adventures both inside and out of the graveyard -- and even in some stranger locales. Gaiman offers a winding, fascinating journey that eventually will bring Bod face to face with his destiny.

"The Graveyard Book" is a Neil Gaiman story, so naturally there are plenty of fascinating, supernatural characters to meet along the way and lots of adventure, but at its heart, it's a book about growing up. Through the course of the story, Bod goes through the same transformations that most boys go through as they get older. He searches for his own identity. He deals with friendships found and lost -- both human and supernatural. He questions his guardians and tries to find his own place in the world. He just has the added issues of dealing with ghosts, monsters and attaining some small, yet effective, magical powers.

While there's certainly some creepiness involved -- there almost has to be with a story set in a graveyard -- but there's much more wonder and discovery. Despite the circumstances that brought Bod to his current state, the story is less dark and gloomy and more triumphant and uplifting. There's a certain fairy-tale atmosphere about it, even in the darker moments. That's one of the things that Gaiman does best, and one of the things that keeps me coming back to his books.