Sunday, March 14, 2010

Redux #20 - "The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman

"It takes a graveyard to raise a child."

I picked up The Graveyard Book (2008) by Neil Gaiman because I wanted to actually participate in this month's Pajiba/Cannonball Book Club thingy (I forget its official name). My only experience with Gaiman's writing to date was Good Omens, which I enjoyed reading, so I wasn't averse to reading something else by him. I probably wouldn't have found The Graveyard Book by myself--besides being a children's novel, a boy growing up in a graveyard wouldn't have caught my attention. But I like to break out of my rut every now and then and I'm looking forward to seeing what everyone else has to say. My simple assessment is that I liked the book, but it wasn't spectacular for me. I appreciated the creativity, but I had some trouble connecting with the characters, and if I don't care about the characters the book won't make as strong an impression on me.

Warning: spoilers will most likely be sprinkled throughout the rest of this review.

It's probably easiest for me if I just go chapter by chapter here, as some of them really worked for me and others didn't do so much. I really enjoyed chapters 1 and 2. The baby crawling into the graveyard with the killer chasing him was good and creepy, and Bod's isolation and loneliness was no more apparent than when his new friend, Scarlett, left him at the end of chapter 2. Also, the moral lesson of not giving into your fear was portrayed well with young, little Bod standing up to the Sleer. I also enjoyed chapter 4, The Witch's Headstone, where Bod is introduced to the unconsecrated portion of the graveyard and gets a headstone for the witch, Liza. There were some good lessons on judging people and treating them well, which I appreciated. I especially liked Silas and Bod's conversation about suicide: a potentially controversial topic for kids' reading, but I felt that Gaiman handled it with sensitivity. The final chase scene also held a good amount of suspense, especially before the killer is revealed. The bittersweet triumph at the end when Scarlett runs away from him, mad and scared, was also not something you see in your typical children's book, and I appreciated the honesty of it.

The chapter that was the most moving was the final one, where Bod outgrows the graveyard, says goodbye to his adopted family and home, and strikes out on his own. I saw this as a pretty clear metaphor for growing up and gaining independence, and Gaiman hit it right on the head with Bod's reluctance to leave the safe life he's known and the people he loves, even as he yearns to experience life and the larger world.

The one thing that kept me from getting too attached to this book, however, was that everything that occurred felt so random, manufactured, and quick that I didn't have any time to get into the heart of the story or really get attached to any of the characters (except for, perhaps Scarlett). The chapters felt more like a series of connected short stories than a book. It jumped, with no explanatory support from hell and ghouls, to the dance of the dead, to bullies at school--all of which, I have to admit, I didn't get much out of. Random ghosts were popping up every page or so to never be seen again and I never got much of a sense of community in the graveyard or an understandable framework for this new, ghosty world.

Also, Silas was a character I was ready to really care about, but I knew so little about him that he was never more than a shadow. When I read the chapter on the dance of the dead, I knew that I should feel sorry for Silas because he was all alone, neither living nor dead, but it wasn't working. Finally, when Silas and his group go down into that deep cave to kill some more Jacks, it wasn't clear what was happening, what he was doing, or why I should care. Gaiman quickly kills off a random character we'd never seen before and even Lupescu's death is kind of glossed over. What is the point of introducing and offing a character in the same page? At that point I was much more interested in Bod and what was happening above ground. I guess I can sum all my problems up with the idea that I never lost myself and forgot I was reading a novel. The jumping around and lack of understanding of how the world works just kept reminding me that it wasn't real. That being said, I really enjoyed some parts of it and look forward to the discussion.

Reading The Graveyard Book has inspired me to read its inspiration, The Jungle Book. I'm interested to see if reading The Jungle Book somehow changes or enlightens my opinion of this work. The review will hopefully be coming soon.

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