In The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman writes a fairy-tale like fantasy for all ages, evocatively illustrated by Dave McKean. We follow Nobody Owens, the only living resident of the graveyard at the top of the hill as he grows up and discovers the gothic, fantastical world around him.
“Bod” Owens comes to the graveyard as a baby, accidentally saving his own life by toddling up the hill as his family are swiftly and silently murdered by “the man Jack”. The Owenses, themselves alive when “men had first started to wear powdered wigs”, take him in, and with the vote of the graveyard ghost residents he is given their freedoms and their powers. Overseen by his gratifyingly mysterious guardian Silas – who is neither dead nor alive – the chapters follow Bod as he grows, and the adventures he has as he falls into this world.
It is a simple, beautifully executed concept because of how Gaiman describes the world. As I’ve (ardently) written before, there is no need to justify or explain ghosts, ghouls, or a world where a boy can slip through walls: Gaiman is just drawing our attention to what is already there. You can tell between the lines that there is a complete world beyond what is written on the page: this is just an insight into a place which is recorded in a tone that almost seems to take it for granted. It is a brilliant experience, and while I may have sometimes felt this book was pitched at a younger audience than I, I revelled in how Gaiman had recaptured Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book anew.
Bod’s story picks up as he grows, and the man Jack continues to hunt the baby who escaped. But to me the strongest element of the story is in the little details: the characterisations, the small side notes that add colour and flux to a beautifully drawn world. A reimagined Bagheera, Silas is the moral crux and yet almost absent in his mystery. Never named, never really described, we are sketched an image of darkness and flight, a hidden kindness and unknown bravery. Bod’s story is given adventures and light through the many ghost residents with whom he spends his nights: the poet, the traveller, the witch. Every time we meet a new resident, or Bod runs through the graveyard, we are given an insight into their epitaph: “Digby Jones ‘1785-1860, As I Am So Shall You Be'”; “Thomes Pennyworth ‘here he lyes in the certainty of the moft glorious refurrection'”; “Miss Letitia Borrows, Spinster of this Parish ‘Who Did No Harm to No Man all the Dais of Her Life. Reader, Can You Say Lykewise?'”. This graveyard covers paupers to gentry, over centuries of history, giving diversity and embellishments to the story. Further, McKean’s illustrations add to the whispered, mist-like feeling in the graveyard, and seem to appear when darkness or wonder are afoot.
The more I think about it, the more I like The Graveyard Book: the complex, subtle work that has gone into it by both Gaiman and McKean to create a very present, very mysterious world is gratifying and a joy to dive into. Bod’s simple acceptance at the only world he knows pulls us in to this wonderful place where there is so much to see. Although short, I loved the time I spend in this world.