"It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will," said Silas, "take a graveyard."
I suspect that there aren't many authors who could - or, indeed, would even set out to - write a sweetly charming novel about boy being raised in a cemetery by dead people, after the murder of his entire family. But in The Graveyard Book (2008), Neil Gaiman makes it seem effortless. Falling somewhere between a collection of short stories and a novel, this is a highly accomplished and (too?) polished young-adult tale - if, ultimately, a rather lightweight and forgettable one - with shades of Kipling and particularly of Edward Gorey. It is also graced with some marvellously off-kilter illustrations from frequent Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean.
Without wanting to be too flippant, it's a book that - and this may sound like a lazy comparison, but it's an apt one nonetheless - seems to be just waiting for its Tim Burton-directed stop motion translation to the big screen. The aforementioned boy, the self-named Nobody/Bod, is described through the eyes of one character as "a small, grave face and grey eyes staring up at her from beneath a mop of mouse-coloured hair". In both its visual and its emotional notes, The Graveyard Book shares the some of the sensibility of The Gashlycrumb Tinies and The Nightmare Before Christmas, but with a much friendlier and arguably safer overlay: disappointingly (at least to me), it is less mordant than the former, less exuberant than the latter.
The story is couched in a very visual style, resting not so much on detailed description, as on explicit invitations to the reader to conjure up the images for themselves, as in this, our first sight of the graveyard:
The fog was thinner as you approached the top of the hill. The half-moon shone, not as bright as day, not by any means, but enough to see the graveyard, enough for that.
You could see the abandoned funeral chapel, iron doors padlocked, ivy on the sides of the spire, a small tree growing out of the guttering at roof level.
You could see stones and tombs and vaults and memorial plaques. [...]
You would have seen these things, in the moonlight, if you had been there that night.
This engaging approach is reminiscent of Kelly Link (it surfaces again, later, in asides like "Abanazer Bolger had seen some odd types in his time; if you owned a shop like Abanazer's, you'd see them too") but again Gaiman's work emerges from the contrast as just a little bit nicer, lacking the razor-sharp surreality that Link achieves even in her YA fiction.
Nonetheless, Gaiman's narrative voice is distinctively and warmly his own. Time and again, here, he demonstrates his skill at the line-by-line act of storytelling - the skill that makes his live readings of stories such absorbing performances - through short sentences, carefully-deployed detail and emphasis, and precise but fluid use of sound and rhythm and juxtaposition:
The man Jack was tall. This man was taller. The man Jack wore dark clothes. This man's clothes were darker. People who noticed the man Jack when he went about his business - and he did not like to be noticed - were troubled, or made uncomfortable, or found themselves unaccountably scared. The man Jack looked up at the stranger, and it was the man Jack who was troubled.
"This man" becomes Bod's guardian; the relationship between the two of them is underdrawn, but in many ways more compelling for it. "There were people you could hug, and then there was Silas", Bod reflects, and what more do we need than that? The recognition it produces in the reader is worth paragraphs of exposition or pages of pseudo-father/son bonding.
It's a conversational, slow-build-with-shocks style that suits young-adult and children's stories well, and it shares with Doctor Who the strategy of conjuring otherness from the mundane and everyday, playing on childhood's blurrier boundaries between fantasy and reality, in such a way as to emotionally involve (and freak out!) the kids. This particular address to the reader reminded me very much of 'Blink', but it isn't alone:
One grave in every graveyard belongs to the ghouls. Wander any graveyard long enough and you will find it - water-stained and bulging, with cracked or broken stone, scraggly grass or rank weeds about it, and a feeling, when you reach it, of abandonment. [...] If the grave makes you want to be somewhere else, that is the ghoul-gate.
My choice of "warmly" to describe Gaiman's narration, however, was a deliberate one. Yes, it's warm, even when he's recounting, as at the start of this book, the murder-by-night of most of a family, and their surviving toddler's narrow escape from the same blade. Adam Roberts has argued that the warm (he calls it "twee") tone and dark subject are a damaging mismatch, and I don't entirely disagree; certainly, as I've already indicated, I found The Graveyard Book too lightweight to get under my skin in any lasting way. The multiple sad ironies of the headstone inscriptions belonging to Bod's dead friends - which tend to be shared with the reader as part of a thumbnail character sketch when we first encounter them - seem rather wasted as throwaway jokes. "Thomas Pennyworth (here he lyes in the certainty of the moft glorious refurrection)" is funny on its own, but taken with the various other expressions of (obviously now thwarted!) religious and personal hopes, it seems a missed opportunity for something deeper. Especially given that the book also gestures at the ways in which death is devastating far beyond physical pain:
"So?" he said. "It's only death. I mean, all of my best friends are dead."
"Yes." Silas hesitated. "They are. And they are for the most part, done with the world. You are not. You're alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once's you're dead, it's gone."
Ultimately, these themes never properly connect with the story - the reasons the murder of Bod's family, and the increased presence of the villains in the action towards the end, both diminish the impact of these thoughts on death amid a more conventional fantasy climax of chase scenes and magical combat - and are left as a background layer, something for the reader to ponder rather than ever really shaping the text.
But The Graveyard Book does have its touching and its chilling moments. (And its funny ones; asked by his uncanny teacher who the "different kinds of people" are, Bod replies, Pratchett-esque: "'The living,' he said. 'Er. The dead.' He stopped. Then, '...Cats?' he offered, uncertainly.") The initial murders, before plot-revelation strips them of their mystery and much of their power, are disturbing precisely for being half-glimpsed and apparently, horrifically random; the ghoul's underworld city is a touch generic at first blush, but is made to live through the fairy-tale exaggeration of its depiction, and the way it illuminates its inhabitants:
all of the angles were wrong - that the walls sloped crazily, that it was every nightmare he had ever endured made into a place, like a huge mouth of rotting teeth. It was a city that had been built just to be abandoned, in which all the fears and madnesses and revulsions of the creatures who built it were made into stone. The ghoul-folk had found it and delighted in it and called it home.