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Book Review: The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

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The plot is archetypal Gaiman: an unsuspecting ordinary person (this time an infant) wanders into an unfamiliar and magical but not unappealing otherworld (this time an abandoned graveyard) where he learns just as much about himself as about his new surroundings.

Given the fact that I've read enough Gaiman books to identify this pattern, I suppose it's obvious I'm a fan. I had an inkling I would like this book before I cracked open its spine.

And I did like the book. So did the folks at the American Library Association (ALA), who rewarded the book their respected John Newbery Medal for singular children's literature. I can't quite reconcile myself to the thought that Gaiman, who one wrote a devilish story in which Snow White, a vampire-waif who seduced forest men for access to their blood before she married the necrophiliac Prince Charming, now joins the ranks of Beverly Cleary and E.L. Konigsburg as one of our country's foremost youth raconteurs, but that's how it is. Who'd have thought?

So, I liked the book, and some other people did, too. But despite the trophies it has amassed in the near-year since its release, the Newberry being only the most prestigious, I'm not convinced that Graveyard is Gaiman's masterpiece.

I have two prime complaints.

Complaint No. One:

The book's introduction is brilliant. (I know that doesn't sound like a complaint, but stick with me.) In the introductory chapter there is an unorthodox marriage of picture and prose.

First, on black paper, there is only a knife, a hand, and a few words. Flip the page. There, on white paper, you'll find the knife, the hand, the body they're attached to, and a few more words. Flip the page. Now you'll find the knife, the hand, the body, the stair they're all climbing, and a larger block of words. Flip the page again, and you're on to all-out prose.

My first complaint is that the novel, which features additional clever drawings by Dave McKean, is so spell-binding in these first few pages that it sets spectacularly high expectations, which it never reaches. I found the first chapter's set-up exquisite, and as a result I suppose my expectations were also — exquisite. I pressed forward toward Chapter Two, giddy with the anticipation that the prose-picture combination would become a motif, that every thirty or so pages I could look forward to some new fusion.

That never happens. The novel never repeats its opening tactic, that of gradually pairing more and more prose with less and less tantalizing illustration. Sure, Chapter Two opens with a picture — two of them, in fact. The first depicts Bod (short for Nobody Owens, the book's orphan/protagonist) bored in his graveyard, and the second is a profile of Bod's guardian, the vampire(?) Silas. From here on out, McKean's drawings are merely efficient. They fill margin spaces; they help us imagine unimaginable characters like the Sleer, the multi-voiced ephemeral entity that bodyguards aboriginal heroes in the graveyard's deepest crevice; but they do not propel the narrative. They're mere afterthoughts.

In all fairness, I suppose it's possible that all this book's illustrations, including its splendid opening ones, are afterthoughts. Writers don't necessarily set out to couple words with pictures, and that decision could have been made more by Gaiman's publisher than by Gaiman himself. Perhaps I expect too much from him just because he happens also to be the man responsible for Sandman.

Fair or not, I complain that the first chapter is this novel's best. After that, the narrative heads downhill, though, fortunately, at not too steep an angle. Like I said, I liked the book.

Complaint No. Two:

My second complaint — easier to explain — is that the book's first half is downright episodic. A chapter about Bod's arrival. A chapter about ghouls. A chapter about the witch in the unconsecrated patch of the graveyard. A chapter about school. I was not surprised to read in the author's notes that one of these chapters was even published as a short story before the book was complete.

These chapters are solid but not inextricable. That's okay for a book like the recent Pulitzer winner, Olive Kitteridge, but in a book that markets itself as a continuous novel? The consequence is a narrative that feels disjointed, that could be put down then picked up a month later without any difficulty. I don't mean that as a compliment.

For a novel that opens with such a suspenseful bang!, Graveyard never evolves into a page-turner. That would have required unity. Gaiman attempts cohesion with the half-hearted whodunnit-slash-secret-society plot-line, but even it rarely bubbles to the surface of any but the first and last chapters. (More could be written here about the resolution of that particular plot thread, which seems to me way too pedestrian for an author of Gaiman's imagination, but — I'll say it again, just for good measure — I like the book, and I wouldn't want to spoil it for you completely.)

My two complaints aside, Graveyard is a pleasant and inventive book, and, as a former teacher of high school English, I am glad to see a text of such tween potential that isn't afraid to challenge its reader with vocabulary like "ululating" and "susurrous" — two words I doubt you'll find in any of those wretched Stephanie Meyer vampire novels.

On the subject of Twilight, and, in conclusion, allow me to make a prediction: The Graveyard Book will soon become a movie. Hopefully it will become a good movie, with a reputable director, humanistic performances, and not too many ghoulish special effects. (Tim Burton, please don't apply for the job). Maybe when that happens I'll revisit and rethink my complaints.

Oh, and lest I forget, another prediction: when the Graveyard movie happens, it will be renamed Nobody Owens.

You heard it here first.

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About Dusty Hixenbaugh

  • Excellent review, and right on all counts. I’ve been a Gaiman fan since his Sandman days, and even his worst book is infinitely better than most of the dross out there.