© Neil Gaiman.
Neil in his afterword, and the publisher’s choice of back cover quotes suggest the structure of this book is based on Rudyard Kipling’s first and second “Jungle Book” collections of stories about Mowgli, the infant human who is taken in by wolves and lives with them in the jungle. While it does have some similarities in plot, I found the structure to be considerably different. Kipling’s books alternate between Mowgli stories and unconnected animal stories. Even the Mowgli stories are largely independent, except for a few continuing characters, and the plot thread about the tiger Shere Khan, Mowgli’s enemy. Neil’s new book seems at first to be a collection of short stories, but they are all connected in important ways. Sure, you can read any one and enjoy it for itself, but reading the book entire is a much richer experience. It has what I would call a spiral plot. Elements, locations and characters from each story recur in later ones, but always with new importance, as the protagonist, Bod, a young boy taken in by the ghosts of a graveyard to protect him from his enemy the man Jack, learns things about himself and his situation from each chapter, and applies that knowledge in later ones. Sure, he’s a kid, he makes mistakes, but he learns from them. And we, as readers, soon get caught up in his story in a way hard to accomplish with the kind of “one day, in the graveyard” episodes the chapters seem at first on the surface. By the time of the climactic chapter 7, Bod has grown in wisdom and the mastery of his domain well beyond his years, and can finally take on his enemy just like Mowgli takes on Shere Khan. In that way, it is like Kipling.
One of Neil’s strengths, I think, is that ability to weave together apparently disparate elements into one strong storyline, so that, as the climax arrives, and each element comes into play, you think how right and perfect it all was from the beginning. Another is his ability to play against expectations, turning things on their heads, something he does well here, too. One would expect the spooky graveyard full of ghosts to be terrifying, but for Bod and us it’s soon an island of safety in a hostile outside world. Whoever was trying to kill the infant is still out there, waiting. Bod’s allies are mainly iconic figures of horror movies and stories, but most of them are anything but horrible. There are a few exceptions, to keep things from getting too predictable, though, which is a good thing. And be on your guard, there will be other surprises, very effective ones!
Neil is a friend, and I was predisposed to like this book, so take that into account, but I think it’s a fine piece of writing. It took me a little while to warm to Bod himself, but by chapter 4, when he is beginning to act on his own with thought and heart, I was won over. Bod’s ghostly “family” and friends in the graveyard were all entertaining, but none of them take the stage enough to get much beyond caricature. Only the ghost from Chapter 4: “The Witch’s Headstone” really succeeds in doing that, but other characters, like Bod’s guardians Silas and Miss Lupescu and his human friend Scarlett are quite well-developed and real. Or, as real as they can be in a story like this!
There’s another author comparison the publisher would probably not want made. Consider: an infant boy and his family are attacked by a vicious enemy, who kills the parents, but somehow, miraculously, the boy survives, grows and thrives to eventually face the murderer himself. Sound familiar? But, of course, Neil goes a completely different way with it than Rowling. There were a few other authors that came to mind while I read: P.L. Travers in Chapter 5, and H.P. Lovecraft in Chapter 3. But, above all, it’s Neil’s story.
While I love the cover by Dave McKean, I can’t say his interior illustrations did much for me. His interpretations of the characters didn’t come close to the way I pictured them in my mind, and the somewhat loose and impressionistic style of his linework these days pushes me away rather than drawing me in, but that could just be me.
I’m sure most people reading this blog need no encouragement from this quarter, but I can say I had a great time reading “The Graveyard Book,” and expect you will, too. And, now that I’ve read it, I’ll probably listen to at least some of Neil’s readings of the complete book on his website, which I resisted until now, so I could hear it in my own inner voice first.
Very highly recommended!