“It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will take a graveyard.”
Generally supernatural things in fiction are kept mysterious. There’s tension that comes when there’s something otherworldly. The entire aspect of afterlife and death is usually treated as something very mysterious, impossible for humans to comprehend. Even in books where the otherworldly is central to the plot, such as in Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom series, that aspect of the world is still regarded as a treacherous place, difficult and perilous for human beings to venture into and comprehend.
So I was pleasantly surprised when Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book made the supernatural accessible. While far from mundane, the ghosts and otherworldly beings are, for the most part, very easy to relate to. And seeing them all through the eyes of Nobody Owens, the boy raised in the graveyard by these ghosts, made their dynamic and interactions with the human world fascinating to me. Neil Gaiman said in the afterward that he was very much inspired by The Jungle Book, and though my familiarity with that story only extends to the Disney cartoon, I know enough about the premise to see the resemblance in the two tales.
The plot of this book is simple enough. A friend of mine put it thus when recommending it to me: “A boy’s parents are killed when he’s a baby and he’s raised by ghosts in a graveyard and shenanigans occur because bad guys exist.” From this recommendation, I could tell that the book itself was going to be different in atmosphere and tone from the run-of-the-mill children’s book (this book is specifically marketed towards young children). I was fairly sure the setting would be intriguing, and it was. I was happy to see that the main character, Nobody, while still a very believable child, wasn’t a brat throughout, as so many protagonists for children’s books seem to be. He made mistakes and got angry, but he also apologized for them and learned from them. His was a growing up story that was quite enjoyable for me to read about, even if it was geared to a younger audience.
On the whole, though, what captivated me most were the relationships between the characters. I could tell from what I knew that the ghosts were going to be much more human and easy to relate to than usual, and I greatly enjoyed catching glimpses of the past inhabitants of the graveyard. Caius Pompeius, the Roman who had been buried there several thousand years ago and takes his responsibility as ‘one of the graveyard’s most senior citizens’ quite seriously, was one of my favorite examples of this. The entire population of the graveyard was easy to imagine, even with only the barest hints of their history.
But probably my favorite relationship of all was that between the boy Nobody Owens and his mysterious guardian Silas. This could be because I’m generally a sap for anything that involves parental bonds without an actual parenting relationship (though I love parental relationships as well, which actually leads to one of my minor criticisms of this book). But there was something very touching about how much Nobody relied on his guardian to help him make sense of his identity as a living boy raised and accustomed to the customs of the dead. And conversely, Silas’s own gentleness toward the boy as the story progressed put a huge smile on my face. I think I found this relationship so beautiful because it progressed and grew. In the beginning of the story, when the decision was first made to take a living boy into the realm of the graveyard, Silas was rather lukewarm about the prospect, though he never openly objected. Yet as Nobody grew up, it was apparent that they were growing closer and that they both were glad they had had the chance to know each other.
When it came to less tangible aspects, the book doesn’t disappoint. I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone seeking deep philosophy, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some thought provoking moments. One of my favorites of these was this bit on how the ghosts of the graveyard live: “They’ve had their life, done what they’ve done. We dun’t change.” This is the key distinction between the living and dead made throughout the book; the living can change and grow, make different decisions and alter their lives. The dead cannot. Even though they perceive and see the world around them, they have no such freedom. Children who have died children remain children in their souls. While the soul may understand and feel after death, who that person is by then determined by what they did in life. And this idea I found interesting. If nothing else in life, the people of this book all have to grapple with the people they are and the choices they can make. And that underpinning made the book a very worthwhile read.
I did have a few minor nitpicks with the book. I really would have liked to see more of Nobody’s relationship with his ghostly parents, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, and the explanation for the villains going after Nobody in the first place felt a trifle rushed. But on the whole, it was a good and engaging story; a very quick read that I was able to knock off in about a day. It’s specifically geared toward children (if I were in a parent’s position, I’d say age 10-11 minimum, as it’s rather dark), but I think that anyone who enjoys a foray into an unconventional and imaginative story would like The Graveyard Book.