A Treat for the Macabre Child in Me: Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s say I give this book 4.5 stars. I’m not sure it rises to To Kill a Mockingbird levels (my 5-star standard), but it’s pretty darned awesome.

When I was a child, I devoured everything macabre I could find. I was reading Edgar Allan Poe when I was 9. And not just his famous stuff, but his weird Victorian “alarms built into the coffin,” “fears of being buried alive” stuff. I read everything I could find about vampires and ghosts and telekinesis and, to a lesser extent, werewolves (because they seemed so much less plausible to me).

I loved reading The Graveyard Book as an adult, and I would have loved it as a child. I wonder, though, how old my daughter will be before I think it’s right to read to her. She’s almost 7 now and it’s not the death stuff I’d be afraid of exposing her to. We’ve already read Bambi: A Life in the Woods and are halfway through The Long Winter. Not to mention, we just read about the Punic Wars and how Hannibal drank poison when Carthage was sacked despite his incredible elephant-assisted victories against the Romans. I doubt she’d be bothered by the death part of this book any more than Nobody is.

The thing that would keep me from reading this book to my daughter right now is the intensity of the action. It’s so suspenseful and desperate, so full of deceit and doubt. It’s wonderful and human, but I’m not sure I’m ready for that part of the world to be revealed to her yet. Although I suppose I’d rather it be revealed to her in fiction before it’s revealed to her in real life.

At any rate, what was it I loved about this book? I think it’s mostly what I love about all of Gaiman’s books. They are contemporary but they closely link the present with the past. They remind us that the fears and worries and hopes that we have now are shared with those who came before us. Gaiman taps into this allegory, this timeless mythology that touches me at some very basic level.

That’s not specific at all. Specifically, I love the language. I love that I am in the graveyard. It’s one of the things I enjoyed about Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry. I remember walking through the cemetery near my Midwestern university and feeling the peace and the timelessness of the place. I long for the warmer weather so I can drag my children along as I traverse the New England churchyards. Gaiman brought that sense of peace and wonder and awe at the passage of time to his descriptions of the graveyard on the hill. It felt like home, in an odd (and rather cold) sort of way.

In addition, I like the way that Neil Gaiman’s books remind me that there is a real person writing the book. Granted, that’s a rather uncomfortable reminder since it carries with it the implicit “why haven’t you written a novel?” question, but it’s also reassuring that I could still, one day, perhaps, maybe, publish a novel of my own (that people will praise and pan on Goodreads and then forget about).

I could oversimplify things and say that this is at its heart a coming-of-age novel. Certainly the concept that home changes when you leave it is present for Nobody Owens, that no matter how much you long for the comfort of the place you call home, it changes as you change, and when you try to go back, you find that it isn’t the place you remember.

But it feels like more than a coming-of-age novel. Maybe that’s just because I’m on the Owenses’ side of the parenting adventure rather than Nobody’s now, though.

Bottom line: I liked it a lot. And I will be watching for the time when it seems appropriate to read it with my daughter (and my son, but he’s still on Cookie Monster, so it might be a while longer for him).

View all my reviews

4 comments

  1. Pingback: 2012: My Year in Books « Imperfect Happiness
  2. Melanie Meadors · February 18, 2012

    ” It’s, in a way, like talking to someone I once made out with but who doesn’t remember me at all.”

    Yes!! Exactly!!! When I do talk to big huge name authors, I tend to speak rather red faced and explosively for the first couple minutes or so (more so than when I first speak to anyone else… you can imagine). Speaking to George R.R. Martin, if he had been anyone else, would have been utterly embarrassing. THank goodness he (like most other writers) is so nice and down to earth.

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  3. Melanie Meadors · February 17, 2012

    You’ve described the reasons I liked this book. I love the way Neil uses words. I actually like his shorter works better than his longer ones, and I think this is one of the reasons why. If I could ever come close to “wielding my words” the way he does, I would die a happy woman. Sometimes I feel like, when reading his short stories, I’m reading (pardon my saying) “writer’s porn.” It’s like he weaves magic, the worlds that he writes about become so real to me, his words set the mood so well. I write about different things than he does, but I would love to be able to put my readers under the same spell he puts me under.

    And no, I’m not really a shrieking fan girl about him. I just like his work :). And I think I drank a little too much wine tonight… 😉

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    • CJ · February 18, 2012

      I totally agree with you about “writer’s porn”. I think I’ve written about this before, but I heard a radio story about how, when we read, our brain activity actually mirrors the brain activity of the author as she was writing the thing we’re reading. I wonder if that could be part of the “spell” some authors are able to put us under. Perhaps it’s just that some authors are better at putting us in their heads. That explanation also could account for the intense feeling of intimacy reading sometimes gives me. And maybe why I’ve always felt a little shy when meeting authors. It’s, in a way, like talking to someone I once made out with but who doesn’t remember me at all.

      And incidentally, this review was written under the influence of a quite nice organic zinfandel (NOT white zinfandel. Just to be absolutely clear). So you read (and commented) in the exact right frame of mind.

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