Thursday, March 1, 2012

Book Review: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book (2008), Neil Gaiman. Paperback, 336 pages. 

Awards: Hugo Award, Newberry Medal, Locus Award, Carnegie Medal.

Summary: Nobody Owens is raised by the undead inhabitants of a graveyard after his family is methodically dispatched by a mysterious killer. For a more detailed summary, click here.

      There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
     The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
     The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.
     The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done . . .


Writing Quality: 7/10 

Depth of Concept: 5/10

Rounded Characters: 5/10

Well-Developed World: 6/10

Page Turner: 7/10

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10

Overall Recommendation: 7/10


Writing Quality: 7/10. There is a simplicity and a gracefulness to the prose in this novel that I appreciate. I don't love everything that Gaiman has written, but in this he hits the tone just about right for a young audience, without dumbing it down or losing lyricism to his spare style. Perhaps more than anything, he takes a ghost story that might otherwise be too macabre, and with gentle and clever understatement makes it both palatable and at times, tender.

Depth of Concept: 5/10. This isn't a complex story. Oh, you might get some mileage by exploring connections with Kipling's The Jungle Book, but at its heart, this is a story about growing up, for kids who are growing up. It's about the loss of loved ones, the importance of belonging, and the realities of risk and danger in the world, in ways that kids might connect with. That doesn't mean it's not also pleasurable for adults; it just means that Gaiman didn't write it for us to play any intellectual games with. It is what it is: a well-told ghost story that might make us nostalgic for our own coming of age, and our own youthful eccentricities and the eccentricities of our caregivers.

Rounded Characters: 5/10. While the characters are pleasurable enough in The Graveyard Book, this isn't a character study by any means. You've got a lot of fun grumbly characters and fun devilish characters, and a few kind and loving characters, but they each fit pretty neatly into those categories, without a lot of ambiguity. Really, this stands out as more of a what-if story. What if a boy was raised by ghosts? There is some mystery to some of the characters, but not particularly a sense of depth. The story doesn't exactly have poor characterization . . . it just isn't trying to have intriguing characters so much as it is trying to set up interesting situations and describe them well.

Well-Developed World: 6/10. I considered scoring this a little lower, but decided that while the "world" is not particularly large or detailed, the portions of the story that really matter are described just as much as they should be. It's the same kind of rationale I use for McCarthy's The Road. Now, admittedly Bod does make forays into some fantastic places . . . but they end up feeling more like dreams than anything fully fleshed out. That's not necessarily a bad thing. This is a pretty simple tale, and there's not a lot of journeying around beyond the graveyard into the real world. It's deliberate. At one point late in the novel, Bod sums it up nicely when he says "I've learned a lot in this graveyard . . . But there's a world out there,with the sea in it, and islands, and shipwrecks and pigs. I mean, it's filled with things I don't know." So, for what it is, it works.

Page Turner: 7/10. I liked the characters in the book, but I didn't care as much about them or the situations as I have in some other novels. I know there are some who felt very touched by the novel, but I just felt a little more like an observer than I do in many stories. For that reason, it wasn't hard to read a chapter and then put the book down to do something else. While Gaiman writes well, his narrative voice here is a little bit aloof, a little less intimate than some stories.

Kept Me Thinking: 4/10. I can't say I thought a lot about the story or the characters when I wasn't reading the book; it was mostly just enjoyable while reading it, a diversion.

Overall Recommendation: 7/10. The only other of Gaiman's novels I've picked up (I can't remember which), I didn't enjoy and ended up abandoning. But since seeing MirrorMask, and then Coraline, and finally reading this, it gives me a new-found appreciation for the man and his work. I'm going to have to give him some more chances. (It also doesn't hurt that he and Tori Amos appear to have a thing for each other; it's a bizarre link, but a fun one.) Basically, this is a ghost story for all ages, one that teaches some life lessons in a  pleasant way, and does so with a simplicity and craft that is almost worth it all on its own.

Books To Compare: It's easy to compare Gaiman with some of his contemporaries, whether Terry Pratchett or J. K. Rowling, and even some precursors like T. H. White. He compares favorably, and there's a pleasant, subtle humor that comes easily to him just as it does with the others. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland might be a useful comparison regarding young people in fantastic worlds. There's also a theme of protected innocence in it that would make a good comparison with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, though without all the timely social commentary. For more ideas, try plugging it in to What Should I Read Next?

Check out The Graveyard Book on Amazon.


  1. Try 'Stardust'.

    If you know London at all, you might also enjoy 'Neverwhere'.

    1. I'm excited to try more Gaiman. I just went to the library and picked up Anansi Boys. Have you read that?

  2. Yes. It's good. I think the plot is overcomplicated, but perhaps I am no longer used to adult novels.

    Have you read "Good Omens"? by Pratchett & Gaiman.

    As good as "Eric" for combining rl and fantasy into a page-turning read. imo.

    If you like graphic novels, and you haven't found Gaiman's "Preludes and Nocturnes" I heartily recommend it. It's in his The Sandman series.

    I quite like "Death: The High Cost of Living" - a lovely perky philosphical ramble.

    (while I'm on his website: Stardust)

    1. Thanks for all the suggestions! Plenty to keep me busy for a long time!

  3. I think you should try American Gods, and Sandman, of course.

    1. Thanks for the recommendations!

    2. No problem. Along the same lines, you should check out anything by Roger Zelazny, he's the progenitor of many of the modern fantasy writers.