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It takes a graveyard
on 10 October 2008
Imagine Rudyard Kipling's "Jungle Book"... but replace the animals with ghosts, ghouls, werewolves and other such supernatural creatures.
Such is the concept of "The Graveyard Book," which cleverly turns Kipling's classic story into an exquisitely-written, darkly witty fantasy. While it starts as the assorted supernatural adventures of a young boy raised by ghosts, the story slowly evolves into a beautifully ghastly confrontation between Nobody Owens and the people who want to do him harm.
"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." A man named Jack kills an innocent family at night -- except for a baby boy, who toddles out to the graveyard.
With the approval of the Lady on the Grey, the Owens ghosts adopt the boy, whom they name Nobody (or "Bod" for short), and the mysterious not-dead-or-alive Silas is appointed his guardian. Bod slowly grows up, but his upbringing is hardly ordinary -- he is taught by a Hound of God, wanders into the horrific realm of Ghulheim, watches a danse macabre, and befriends a witch's spirit from the Potter's Field.
But the man named Jack is still out there, and for some reason he (and the organization he works for) still wants to kill Bod. And though Silas and the ghosts are trying to keep him safe, Bod is becoming curious about the world of living humans -- and about the man who murdered his family. And when they come for him, he'll be ready.
The world of Neil Gaiman is never a safe place -- it's always painted in shadows and shades of grey, and something horrible may be lurking around the corner. And the world of "The Graveyard Book" is no exception to this -- it's filled with strange supernatural creatures, hellish red cities with decayed moons overhead, and midnight parades where ghosts dance with the living.
The world of the graveyard is an intriguing one -- moonlight, crumbly headstones, a little stone church, and a creepy barrow where the Sleer lurk. From a lesser author this would be kind of boring, but Gaiman's beautiful prose brings it to life ("There was a silent implosion, a flutter of velvet darkness, and Silas was gone").
And Gaiman explores Bod's childhood with dark humour ("Can you imagine how fine a drink the black ichor that collects in leaden coffins can be?") and adventure. But the tone changes as Bod grows older, especially with the creepily professional Jack and his cohorts slowly closing in on him. It's a coming-of-age tale, and a bittersweet, sometimes terrifying one.
Bod himself is a lovable kid, who slowly explores first the world of the graveyard and then the world of the living. He's both ruthless and kind, sweet and strong. The mysterious Silas -- whose true nature is only revealed late in the book -- serves as a kindly but stern mentor, who pretty clearly loves young Bod like a father.
And there's a pretty wide supporting cast -- Bod's childhood friend Scarlett is rather bratty, but the ghosts make up for that. The snappy, witty witch Eliza, the kindly Owenses, Mother Slaughter, the fussy Mr. Pennyworth, and the schoolteacherish substitute guardian Miss Lupescu all round out the cast. And with only a few lines, Gaiman makes them seem practically real.
"The Graveyard Book" is a beautifully written, bittersweet coming-of-age tale with some moments of pure creepiness. A magnificent fantasy story, which is not to be missed.