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The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

01/11/2008. Contributed by Paul Skevington

Buy The Graveyard Book in the USA - or Buy The Graveyard Book in the UK

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pub: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC. 320 page hardback. Price: 14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-74759-683-7.

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Escapism. It is a word that carries with it a heavy burden of negative imagery that some may hope will dissuade the foolhardy youth from stepping off of the path straight and true. It is an utterance spoken with sneer-mouthed contempt by pouting literati who long ago fell out of love with the idea of narrative itself, let alone the elaborate ornamentation of works whose contents are designed to entertain as well as educate.

How ironic then that Neil Gaiman has created a work that highlights the intrinsic worth of the fantastic, wrapped around the framework of a story whose plot concerns one child's journey from a world of dark-hued magic back towards something more familiar to us as readers. It is our escapist tale told in reverse.

Nobody Owens also known as Bod is the boy in question, who after surviving the brutal slaughter of his family, wanders into the local graveyard wherein its inhabitants, the ghosts of those interred there, adopt him as their own.

Gaiman advises in his acknowledgements page that he is indebted to Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book'. This is evidenced by the structure of the tale, but we should not think that 'The Graveyard Book' represents the first instance of Gaiman using this device in his fiction. The film 'MirrorMask' features a young girl who runs away from the circus. In 'The Sandman', the character of Dream is in a constant dialogue with his inhumanity, embarking on a quest to experience life as we do, a desire that ultimately proves memorably futile.

One of the triumphs of 'The Graveyard Book' is that this return to 'normality' is not some conservative dream of propriety, where a life of diversity is appropriately quashed by the onset of maturity. The book encourages us to draw comparisons between the fascination of the phantasmal and the unending opportunities for awe in the 'real' world. Bod's interest in the secrets of his vampiric guardian Silas equals his longing to experience the mysteries that lie outside of the graveyard. Gaiman allows the book to become a celebration of both the numinous and the concrete, an attitude that I would be happy to see any child of my acquaintance exposed to.

'The Graveyard Book' displays a veneer of quaint archaism whilst maintaining an undercurrent of ferocious modern relevance. The dead denizens of Bod's home are characters drawn from multiple periods of history that children will adore, from his homely spectral parents to the hilarious Nehemiah Trot, who is the subject of my favourite sentence of the work, 'If you couldn't trust a poet to offer sensible advice, who could you trust?'

However, Bod often needs to venture away from the cosy security of his companions into the town itself, where he is afforded no supernatural protection from the threat that hangs over his head. Bod's parents and guardian are reluctant to allow him to leave, but are soon faced with the unhappy realisation that it is impossible to keep Bod entirely safe without ruining his life and stifling any chance he may have for personal development and change. Indeed, as Gaiman points out in the book, change is the one thing that the dead do not do. The parallels between this and the debate that parents are forced to engage with regarding the amount of freedom that they award their own children is obvious. In a society that keeps its young locked away for fear of the unknown predator that may lurk outside, we need as many voices as possible descrying the potentially worse dangers of parental over-protection.

Another admirable thing about 'The Graveyard Book' is Gaiman's willingness to write the story, to not turn one idea into an endless franchise as others with similar thoughts might have been tempted to do. Bod grows to near adulthood through the course of the novel in a series of subtle leaps of time and of perspective. We see the change in Bod in the way that others react to him, perhaps most importantly through the changing attitudes of the two women in his life, the one living and the other dead. Although he remarks to Mother Slaughter that he still feels the same as when he was a child, we know as well as she does that this is not and can never be the case.

The illustrations, provided in my edition by the unique Dave McKean, meld perfectly with the tale, containing within them the marvel and the loss of transformation that the book epitomises. In this endeavour, though, our focus is primarily the prose and Gaiman's prose will, like Kipling's, be captivating children far into the future.

As long as they don't expect to get my copy, that's fine by me.

Paul Skevington

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