The Graveyard Book

image by Neil Gaiman

The story of a young orphaned boy, raised in a graveyard’s community of ghosts, protected by vampires and werewolves, hunted by an ancient league of assassins. The novel is made up a series of short stories tracking the growing boy.

Ok – so this is really a book for children, but like Terry Pratchett’s children’s books, they are enjoyable by grown-ups too. Unlike Pratchett, the moral and teaching is not quite as explicit in the telling, but a little more woven into the story itself. Like Pratchett, the story moves along at a page-turning pace. Each story concludes safely, and usually includes a useful nugget of learning ready to be used in a later story.

The overall story arc moves along quickly: as the boy Nobody Owens grows up, the challenges and problems he faces increase as well. His world is initially limited to the graveyard he is raised in. The first stories chronicle his exploration of his world, and his discoveries of witches, ghouls, ancient Romans and ancient Picts. Later, as a teenager he needs to go to school, and encounters bullies, thugs and greedy pawnbrokers.

Gaiman manages to make the ordinary business of going to school seem exciting by seeing it from the outsiders fresh perspective. Nobody Owens is the outsider – he’s in school to learn stuff. He reads books for pleasure. What a weirdo. Gaiman reminds us how difficult life used to be when we were 10 and stuck in a classroom full of others who did not necessarily want to be friends with us.

Gaiman once wrote in Sandman that “All stories are true”. The Graveyard Book, if not factual, feels true to itself. Like a good fairy tale or fable, it has lessons to teach, and a happily ever after ending. Most of all, the story has heart and wonderful new images and allusions. Instead of re-using the goth-chick Death, Gaiman has a new image of Death: the Lady on the Gray horse. Werewolves and Vampires are shown in a new light – as reformed characters, working to protect the young Nobody.

Gaiman notes in the afterword that he was inspired by his own son playing in a graveyard, and by Kipling’s Jungle Book. If nothing else, this should inspire more people to dig out the original Jungle Books, not just the Disney film.