This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
It’s been a good while since I’ve read any of Neil Gaiman’s works, my last dose probably being his 2005 novel Anansi Boys. Perhaps it is an isolated experience, but reading The Graveyard Book required a re-adjustment into understanding Gaiman’s literary mind. The man has a whole new level of imagination.
With that said, it is initially a surprise that The Graveyard Book is for children. But immersing oneself into the storyline makes the categorisation understandable. The Graveyard Book is not devoid of the elements that make for a good story with an underlying lesson: there is a clear distinction between right and wrong, the encouragement of bravery in times of trouble, and, as a bonus, a central character who survives due to a matter of circumstance. Dare it be said that for some parts, there are common points between The Graveyard Book and the Harry Potter series — this brazen claim being superficial in nature, of course.
Becoming emotional is guaranteed when reading The Graveyard Book, because the lesson catered to “bigger children” is painful and humbling. It is a reminder of the own child within, as well as an admonishment for telling that same child to quiet down and completely abandon the purer notions of the past. It lays bare the realisation that adults need a good story to occasionally remind them of their younger selves, because there are things children can understand better than their grown-up counterparts.
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book begins with a grisly murder. The man Jack, an intruder, breaks into the house of a family and slaughters all of its members — except for one. The lucky soul, a infant boy, survives because he ambles out of the house during the violent attack. He ends up in an abandoned graveyard, surprising the Owenses, a married couple dead for hundreds of years. The man Jack realises he is short of one kill and goes after the infant, after clues around the house betray his escape. But in the middle of his pursuit, he is asked to leave by the graveyard’s apparent supervisor, a figure so imposing, the man Jack has little choice but to vacate the premises.
The spirit of the infant’s dead mother approaches the Owenses, an outline due to the recency of her demise — and fading quickly. Before disappearing indefinitely, she pleads them to take care of her child. Her presence cannot last there because it turns out she will be bound to the graveyard in which her body will be buried.
Mrs. Owens is immediately taken with the infant, and is quick to become emotional when her husband exhibits his reservations. The Owenses never had children, and aside from the beyond belated opportunity to experience parenthood, Mrs. Owens feels the imperative to honour the request of the child’s biological mother. Her husband soon follows suit to her sentiment, and they proceed appeal to the rest of the graveyard’s inhabitants. After a spirited meeting (pardon the pun) and a vote count, the Owenses are granted permission to adopt the child. Now part of the family, the infant is named Nobody Owens. Or Bod, for short. Bod is also be given the freedom of the graveyard, enabling him with the ability to haunt, fade from sight, go through solid objects, and see in the dark. Due to being the mortal member in this family, his basic needs are also to be addressed, and cannot be done discretely with ghostly intervention. Bod is also appointed a guardian, Silas, the supposed graveyard supervisor but is neither living nor dead. Silas would be responsible for providing him with clothing and food — and later in Bod’s life, books and the occasional counsel.
Growing up, Bod gets his daily lessons from the ghosts and is strictly forbidden to leave the graveyard. It turns out that the man Jack is still determined to find Bod, and finish him off, but the fact is deliberately being kept from him. The graveyard and the skills he learns from his lessons — especially the wisdom imparted by Bod’s alternate guardian, Mrs. Lupescu — guarantee Bod’s protection, and he cannot be among the world of the living until it is sure the man Jack cannot harm Bod any longer. But the graveyard itself isn’t without experiences to offer. From friendships with ghosts from varying pockets of history, finding and making a headstone for a spirit girl whose grave lacked one, having a night out with ghouls, encountering the Sleer, and participating in the Macabray (where the dead and the living meet one evening to dance), Bod’s experiences are incomparable to any mortal child his age. Bod does find a friend in a human, however: a girl named Scarlett Perkins, a stroke-of-luck encounter after she wanders away from her parents’ gaze. They will cross each others’ lives twice, and no more than that, because she will forget him.
Unfortunately, the lessons offered by the graveyard cannot contain Bod’s curiosity for the world beyond burial plots. He does sneak out of the graveyard, and fraternises with danger. But Bod’s curiosity also affects his love for books, and Silas grants him the opportunity to go to school to access the library, as long as he keeps a low profile. But Bod is no ordinary child. Not withstanding the fact he is raised by dead people, he possesses extraordinary intelligence and an uncompromising set of principles. When an incident keeps him from attending school again, Silas tells Bod the real reason behind having to stay within the graveyard premises. The reason makes Bod determined to shatter the boundaries between guaranteed safety among the dead and guaranteed death among the living, and risk his life so that he will not be afraid to live.
The Graveyard Book is emotionally engaging, frightening, and sweet. Highly imaginative, it also tugs at the heartstrings. I caught myself smiling when Bod and his childhood human friend, Scarlett Perkins, meet for the second time as teenagers and rekindle their friendship. I was moved when the purported “Jay” Frost becomes friendly with Scarlett and her newly-divorced mother, at one occasion having dinner with them. My heart felt heavy when Bod loses his freedom of the graveyard, and I almost cried his tearful mother bids him good-bye and Bod cannot reciprocate with an embrace. I reached the back cover closer to sunrise than to nightfall, as though to beckon me toward a new appreciation for the daytime world.
After finishing the novel, it dawned on me there is another reason The Graveyard Book is catered to children, and that it could also be the reason Dave McKean‘s illustrations could be more than added aesthetics. Reading a children’s book in their mid-twenties can promise either a rapid reading experience due to the juvenile vocabulary and uncomplicated plot, or weird dreams. The Graveyard Book definitely gave my mind some long overdue exercise. Not only did the images remind me of how old I am, but also that I reached my present age somewhat electively.
Children’s stories are more uninhibited with the crossing the line between what is known and what could be, because there are some things that children can grasp more easily than adults. Because of their purity, they are not as selective with their imagination. The Graveyard Book reminds us of joy, optimism, and simplicity constantly elevated in the period of childhood, and there is never a good enough reason to lose any of those virtues.