Neil Gaiman,
The Graveyard Book
(HarperCollins, 2008)

I don't really like the title, which sounds a bit mundane.

There's nothing mundane about a Neil Gaiman novel, and The Graveyard Book is no exception.

It opens with a triple murder.

A dark man named Jack has killed a man, his wife and their oldest child. The youngest, little more than one year old, evades their fate, however, by climbing up his teddy bear to escape his crib, thumping his butt down the stairway and out the door to an uncertain future.

Fortunately for the boy, his toddling steps take him to a large, unkempt cemetery that is actively populated with the ghosts of ages past. And so, adopted by the late Mr. and Mrs. Owens, a kind and gentle Victorian couple, and taken into more corporeal care by Silas, a highly educated vampire, Nobody Owens -- "Bod" for short -- learns about life from the dead. Besides the usual components of an education -- and let it be said that the residents of the graveyard are especially good at history, although they come up short on current events and contemporary science -- Bod also learns the more ghostly arts of fading from sight and instilling terror in others.

But there are ravenous ghouls at one spot in the graveyard, and a condemned witch lurks in another. There's a werewolf and beet soup and a little girl whose parents think she's made an invisible friend. And might the mysterious killer Jack still be around to try and finish the job he left undone?

Could be, could be.

Gaiman is a modern master of the unconventionally odd, and he deftly paints the landscapes of urban fantasy with a dark brush. His prose is macabre but not morbid, and his dryly humorous touches can be laugh-out-loud funny without ever being overdone.

He writes characters that seem real, even when they are ghosts or vampires or little boys raised in graveyards. His settings, while certainly a step or two outside the world we know, are equal parts silly and serious; circumstances may be dire, and choices often have very real consequences, but you'll chuckle often along the way.

And once it's all over, you'll find yourself content with the ending -- and still wanting to know what happens next. Don't ask Gaiman for answers, though -- he's probably busily plotting the strange characters and dark turns of his next book.

review by
Tom Knapp

12 July 2008

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