Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

By on October 20, 2008

You know when you enjoy a book so much you begin to slow down towards the end just to make the sweetness last?  Well, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is one of those.  NG writes with a rhythm in his words that seduces you.  Coupled with an amazingly simple and brilliant plot, his latest foray into young adult horror will leave you holding your breath through the entire story until that final page allows for your exhale.  

It begins with a brutal murder of a family.  I know, great tween reading, right?  Bear with me here: if your 12-18 year old has read RL Stine, then they can handle the level of gore in this one.  But that’s not to say they are ready for the level of thrills, so beware, this book is not for the real younger set.  

The only one to escape this killing is the newly toddling son who, after hearing bumps from downstairs, awakens and tries his luck at climbing out of the crib and burbling out the open front door.  The murderer (a fantastically new and frightening villain named Jack) realizes that he still “hasn’t gotten the job done” and pursues, but just misses the child as it stumbles into the local graveyard that is locked for the night.  The baby, having slipped through the gate, toddles off to be found by the only inhabitants of the cemetery – the dead.  So Nobody Owens (so named because he has no name) is raised by a family of ghosts from many different eras and with many different histories.  All of the spirits contribute to the child’s education and they all love him like the son they never had, once had, and never thought they’d have again.  Coupled with other supernatural beings that share this world of nurturing darkness, Nobody is kept safe until what begins as a story of alternative families and child rearing takes the reader down the path of a revenge tale.  Even while craving to be in a room with breathing bodies such as his, Nobody Owens learns about love, life, and passion from those whose hearts had stopped beating eons ago.  

Brief note: even if you don’t have time to read this book, this is one that is worth listening to.   I was driving down from the ILC 08 conference in San Jose and had downloaded the book from audible.com.  Gaiman is one of those unique authors who can not only write but reads brilliantly as well.  Have you ever gone to a book signing to hear someone read and been disappointed by their literary presence?  Well, you wouldn’t be by NG.  Listening to a good book is valuable in an entirely different way.  

I hear a teacher at times criticizing listening to books as if developing an audible skill doesn’t have the same value as developing one’s eye.  Not so.  They are different skills and both should be cultivated.  An environment of literature comes in many different forms.  Anyway, as I was saying, Gaiman is an excellent reader, and it’s worth introducing yourself to his work in that format as well as through the visible text. 

I must admit this isn’t my first time at Gaiman’s doorstep.  I’ve had a satisfyingly bumpy relationship with him and his work.  I think it’s important to know a good author across their texts (see Language Arts standards), to be able to read enough of them to know them for their brilliance and their baubles.  

I first discovered Nail Gaiman in high school with his graphic comic, The Sandman.  I dabbled in some Gaiman-written issues of the cross-over horror venture, Hellblazer and even a Swamp Thing or two; but The Sandman, with its homage to both literature and mythology, its characters, its unique art, and the lyricism of its author, spread its tendrils of talent over me with every issue.  I think I had my first adult literary crush on its title character.  

Gaiman can truly frighten the bejeebus out of a person, yet writes with such depth and complexity that you find yourself loving the main character dearly and cheering for his or her victory.  But be warned, Gaiman never guarantees a happy ending, merely a satisfying one.  He’s a fearless author who plays with words as on a lyre, courting the reader and seducing them.

I read his children’s books The Wolves in the Walls (loved) and Coraline (didn’t love – see my take on Alice in Wonderland in my The Looking Glass Wars book review.  It won’t stop me from seeing the movie, however.)   

I read and enjoyed American Gods and Anansi Boys, both on the New York Times Bestseller lists.  I liked Stardust, but I must admit the art was the star of that sweet tale, and the movie didn’t do its images justice.

In The Graveyard Book one young character has been laid to rest with his beloved volume of Robinson Crusoe in his arms.  Nobody Owens borrows the book from the grave as one would from a library.

When I’m gone, Nobody, you may borrow my copy of The Graveyard Book.  You’ll find it with me, in my hands, waiting to share it.  


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