Justin du Coeur (jducoeur) wrote,
Justin du Coeur
jducoeur

Review: The Graveyard Book

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, and it's well worth a review.

Summary: lovely book for all readers. Highly recommended.

Neil described The Graveyard Book at his talk in Cambridge last year, and I've been eagerly awaiting it ever since. He described it as essentially his version of The Jungle Book. Only where the latter descibed what happened when young Mowgli was left in the jungle to be raised by the animals, Neil's book describes the life of young Nobody ("Bod") Owens, who was orphaned into a graveyard, to be raised by the dead people.

Despite the sound of that description, there's nothing especially creepy about the book -- or at least, the dead people aren't creepy. The *living* people -- well, that's another story, but you'll have to read the book for that. Suffice it to say, Gaiman is very interested in exploring the concept of "monsters" here.

The Jungle Book is often presented as separate short stories, and at first this book feels much the same. We follow episodes from Bod's life, starting from him being orphaned when he is barely a toddler, skipping forward a few years at a time as he grows up, learning why one avoids Ghoul Gates, figuring out how to fade from sight, learning friendship from the ghost of a dead witch girl and love from the graveyard's resident poet. As it goes along, though, it all begins to tie together, with all of these strands tightening into a genuine novel. There are no real surprises -- I was usually pages ahead of the story, sometimes chapters -- but the ride is a beautiful and warm one.

The book is being presented as a children's book, at least in some venues (the audio is released on a kids' imprint), but that mostly displays how meaningless the concept of a "children's book" can be. The tale is plenty satisfying enough for the grown-ups, nor does it shy away from being scary when the story calls for that. Far as I can tell, the only things about it that make it a children's book are that our hero is a child, and there is no sex or gore that wouldn't really fit the story anyway.

I tend to read books on audio mostly for convenience: my time is very limited, so I like to read when I have downtime in the car. (All the moreso, now that I'm commuting an hour a day again.) But in this case, the audiobook version is specifically recommended. It is read by Neil himself, and is a joy. As those who have heard him speak know, he has a fine voice to begin with, but by now he has honed the storyteller's craft to a fine edge. Moreover, he's become a master of the particular skills of the audiobook reader, with a wide range of accent and voice details that allow the listener to know who is speaking at all times -- the unflappable calm of Bod's caregiver Silas, or the leather-over-steel edge of The Man Jack, or the open innocence of Bod himself. Neil isn't simply substituting for a professional audiobook reader: by now, he's better than most of them, and he knows precisely what he wants to do with each word of this story.

Overall, an excellent novel -- relatively short, but in no way the less for it. I'd say it's one of Gaiman's best, and that is deliberately high praise...
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