Written by: Mike Leader, Special to CC2K
I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything by Neil Gaiman I have read. Even though I have at times had reservations with the novels themselves, I feel that Gaiman writes with an infectious enthusiasm. He is a writer for daydreamers; his works are first and foremost exercises in pure imagination.
Nearly everything Gaiman puts his name to can be defined by the unique worlds his characters inhabit, and The Graveyard Book is no exception. Central to the story is Bod, who is orphaned at a young age and adopted by a ghostly group interred in a local cemetery. The book is structured almost like a short story collection, with episodic chapters charting Bod’s growth from baby to child to young man. This approach means that some sections stand alone as wonderful stories. (In fact, one of the standout chapters, “The Witch’s Headstone,” was previously published in M is For Magic, a collection of child-friendly short stories.)
Due to this set-up, The Graveyard Book doesn’t have much of the grander, large-scale storytelling of Gaiman’s novels for adults, or even the tightly structured Coraline. Instead, the writer indulges in his love of characterization and endearing portraits. Neil Gaiman is a writer that enjoys odd characters who are rendered with a palpable excitement, and in the novel this aspect is conflated with his masterful command of prose and his encyclopedic interest in eras and cultures past.
The imposed narrative world of a graveyard, with inhabitants that stretch from pre-Roman Britain to the Victorian age, gives Gaiman the opportunity to indulge in his love of age-old modes of speak and communication. Characters such as Mother Slaughter, Mrs Owens, and Nehemiah Trot are primarily rooted in the words granted to them. Even those outside of the graveyard exhibit Gaiman’s exquisite ear for speech, with characters such as the rambly Mr Frost (“I’m also master of the boil-in-the-bag. Eating for one. Living on my own. Bit of a crusty old bachelor. Actually, in the papers, that always means gay, doesn’t it? Not gay, just never met the right woman.”) reminding one of an unaired episode of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads. Equally, a short section involving a close narration involving a young girl named Scarlett shows an acute awareness of modern teenagers (“Scarlett began to walk back down the hill – this was why she needed a mobile phone, she thought. If she was so much as five minutes late, her mother would freak, but she still wouldn’t buy Scarlett a phone of her own. Oh well.”).
It’s quite obvious that I fully enjoy the characters of The Graveyard Book. Neil Gaiman has brought together a collection of well-drawn characters that, in my mind, challenges even his best works. Also, his attention to detail is lovely; one particular running joke is that each gravestone mentioned will be fully cited, epitaph included [“He walked down the path carefully, avoiding the ruts and holes until he reached the impressive stone that marked the final resting place of Alonso Tomas Garcia Jones (1837-1905, Traveler Lay Down Thy Staff).”]
Praise must also go to Dave McKean for his work on the illustrations. A powerhouse of an artist in his own right, it is still welcome to see him work with pencil and brush, as opposed to his trademark multimedia style. The pictures lurk in the corners of each chapter, sometimes insinuating themselves around the text. Shadowy, sketchy images that are full of atmosphere and personality.
The Graveyard Book would be a welcome addition to any library, and can proudly sit alongside Neil Gaiman’s other work. I cannot recommend it more highly.