It takes a graveyard rather than a village to raise a child in Neil Gaiman's latest novel. A toddler named Bod escapes from his parents' murderer by wandering into a cemetery. Swiftly taken into the care of kindly ghosts, he is allocated to a tomb inhabited by Mr and Mrs Owens, a respectable 18th-century couple who become his spirit parents. A neighbour, Caius Pompeius (died during the Roman occupation) is just one of the spectres keeping a friendly eye on him. The boy is in continual danger from the Jacks of all Trades, a sinister organisation from Ancient Egypt. Warned that an extraordinary youth will bring their order to an end, five evil men have correctly identified Bod as the most plausible candidate and are out to get him – so he must hide in the graveyard for all his young life.
It is appropriate that Gaiman, whose works stretch from graphic novels to literary fantasy, should write about a boy living on another borderland, in Bod's case between the living and the dead. But, far from wallowing in morbidity, Bod has an excellent time, enjoying stories told by his tombstone mates, including a poet ("Swans Sing Before They Die") a schoolteacher ("Here he lyes in the certainty of the most glorious resurrection") and a physician ("May He Wake To Glory". When warm-hearted Mrs Owens berates the "fiddle-pated old dunderheads" of the graveyard who dare question her adoption of so vulnerable an orphan, Gaiman treads in the footsteps of the great Leon Garfield in his delight in playing with 18th-century dialect.
Once Bod decides to explore, the graveyard threats to his life multiply, some linked with the plot and others probably because Gaiman simply liked the idea of them. So arbitrary an imagination has its dangers; the Victorian fantasy writer George MacDonald ended up producing stories that increasingly made sense only to himself. But Gaiman is in such form that his large, crossover audience cannot get enough of him, packing out his lectures, his website and his online journal. His novel is excellently illustrated in suitably gothic style by Chris Riddell. For £2 extra, readers can buy a copy with equally haunting but more adult-oriented pictures by Dave McKean, Gaiman's long-time collaborator on their famous Sandman series and much else.