Relating the tombstones – Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book reviewed

Neil Gaiman‘s Graveyard Book (McKean Cover Riddell Cover) has been a while in the coming but it has been worth the wait. Coming in two editions, one illustrated by Chris Riddell and the other by Dave McKean, the book engages wonderfully with children’s literature as well as Gaiman’s earlier books, Neverwhere and American Gods, in a glorious coming together which defies the recent attempts to age bracket books read by children. In part it shows that literature will be read and enjoyed by those who want to and how artificial age boundaries are. One of the joys of reading Gaiman’s work is the realisation that you can read with a wonderfully strange setting and it seems so natural.

Nobody Owens, better known as Bod, is rescued from the house when his family are murdered and is placed in the care of the Graveyard. His growing up is informed by the dead who reflect their own times and make the experience a game for him, albeit a lonely one. He is forced to make the Graveyard into a world which he enjoys, learning the alphabet through the various tombstones.

Using the Jungle Books, in which Kipling explained his version of the world and called for them to understand the Law, an unwritten set of rules of the world which the animals understand. Gaiman’s Mowgli, Nobody, needs to learn about the world of the loving from the dead. There is a sense of Lemony Snicket in the core children’s book in which Bod has to engage with the world and make it into one in which he fits. When Scarlett, who is convinced that Bod is imaginary, leaves, she comments, “One day you’ll grow up  and then you will have to go and live in the world  outside”(p 60) before she is whisked away to Glasgow by her parents. It is the continuation of the journey which Coraline and Helena go on in Coraline and Mirrormask, reaching the boundary and then defining it as a place and time which has gone yet is more whimsical in tone.

There’s a joy in a revenge tale when Bod uses his talents to wreak personal gain when he terrorises Nick. Nick has been bullying Bod at school, so he uses the skills that he has. Yet this is tempered when he talks to Maureen, Nick’s friend, after Bod leaves school and changes from a fun ghostly kit to something far nastier, a hint of the fine line between being bullied and bullying. Moving from joy to terror, Gaiman delights in ranging across horror using it to give it a gravitas, showing that what starts out as fun can turn into something far nastier, whilst ratcheting up the forthcoming climax.

In the middle of the graveyard lies the Mound, a ghoul gate, in which the Sleer lives. A remnant of the Ancient Britons, the Sleer has been forgotten and overlaid by the Romans and succeeding generations. Trapped underground in the darkened cavern, it has slowly gone mad and survives through fear, though perhaps its own as Bod finds out in his hour of need.  In part, Gaiman uses the tomb to go back to the Ur-lands explored in Neverwhere and touched upon in American Gods. As a city, London was able to be mined in part through its location and perhaps, just perhaps, America is too large and diverse to be tackled in the same way. I wonder if there is a warning that trying to find the ur-landscapes and the madness that lies therein or of the undertaking. Herein also lies an echo of American Gods with the nature of the Jacks trying to find their own place in the modern world and Gaiman combines them in a fashion far more brutal than in the earlier novel. Like the earlier books and the Jungle Book, Bod moves on when he confronts the cold fact of the past and comes to know it at an instinctive level. He finds the Law and takes it on board.

The Graveyard Book is  a wonderful book which is layered like the graveyard. Part of the joy is reference spotting as well as the joy in his narrative. Unlike his earlier children’s books, Bod is less sure about how to  engage with the world and makes some halting attempts to do so. It is only when he is able to reconcile the worlds and solve the central mystery to his life, that he can begin to really think about leaving the safety of the cemetary.

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