The Graveyard Book, By Neil Gaiman
Sunday 18 October 2009
The Graveyard Book is one of those rare children's books that can be read with pleasure and profit by adults. It's a kind of supernatural version of The Jungle Book. The ghosts are far from the usual jokey, cartoonish caricatures; Neil Gaiman has thought through and conveyed what it would be like to be a ghost.
The story opens with a triple murder: a husband and wife and their seven year-old daughter are slaughtered by a knife-wielding assassin. But the family's little boy escapes and toddles off into a nearby graveyard, where he is protected and raised by the community of ghosts who dwell there, with some help from Silas, one of the undead. They name him Nobody Owens, which is shortened to Bod.
The Graveyard Book is a series of episodes in Bod's life, in which he grows to maturity and learns about friendship, love, danger, life and death. The episodes are fantastic, in both senses of the word. I particularly treasure one in which Bod is kidnapped by a crowd of ghouls with names such as the Duke of Westminster and the Bishop of Bath and Wells. It features the immortal sentence: "'Plague-pits is good eatin',' said the Emperor of China, and everyone agreed." Each episode could almost stand as a short story in its own right, but by the end of the novel they're all artfully pulled together, when the knife-wielding assassin reappears with his band of evil cronies, the Jacks of All Trades, bent on finishing the job he started.
Chris Riddell's sinuous illustrations are peculiarly well-suited to the tenebrous tone. Some adults refuse to read children's literature on principle. If you're one of them, you are depriving yourself of a treat. This is a novel to make you shiver, both with pleasure and with a delicious frisson of fear. Oh, and did I mention that children (aged 10 and up) will love it too?
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