Geez, my last two posts were grim — on financial chaos and abortion. So, why don’t we lighten things up a little bit, and talk about death?
Neil Gaiman’s Newbery Award-wining young adult novel, The Graveyard Book, may seem familiar to some readers. It is your classic tale about a young boy growing up, overcoming adversity and coming of age. Except that the boy is Nobody Owens, and he is growing up among the dead.
The story starts quickly, with a mysterious figure invading a home and killing its occupants — a young family — while they sleep. However, the baby boy, who is a prodigious walker and climber, manages to get out of his crib before the killer gets to his room, ambles out of the house, and wanders down to the graveyard. There, at the behest of the boy’s newly departed mother, the spirits of the dead take the poor boy in, and manage to trick the assassin into looking elsewhere.
At first the spirits don’t know what to do. The boy — who doesn’t even have a name, which is how he gets to be called Nobody — is alive. How can they take care of a living child? But the Owenses — a married couple that death did not part — are adamant that they should raise the boy (which is how he gets to be called Nobody Owens). A mysterious figure named Silas — who is neither alive nor dead and who can leave the graveyard — agrees to act as the boy’s guardian. And so the community commit to raise the child. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes a graveyard.
The Graveyard Book has been likened to an undead version of The Jungle Book. The book is actually a series of episodes in the life of Nobody Owens as he grows to adulthood. He explores different parts of the graveyard, gets into trouble, gets rescued, meets a young girl from the village and strikes up a friendship, et cetera. These seemingly unrelated events show how Nobody grows and learns. Meanwhile, the assassin who tried to kill him continues his search, as does the agency that employed him. Finally, it all comes crashing down in a great climactic battle wherein Nobody has to take all of the skills he’s learnt to save himself and his friend.
Neil Gaiman, of course, is the author of many books, movies and graphic novels, including the Sandman series, American Gods and Coraline, so he knows what he’s doing when he puts pen to paper. Nobody Owens is a likeable young man and easy to root for as he runs up against the difficulties of life inside and outside the graveyard. Gaiman is also adept at the creepier elements of the story, including Nobody’s kidnapping by goblins.
Still, I’d have to say that I much preferred Coraline as that story held together and felt much more coherent than The Graveyard Book. The episodic nature of the story breaks up any sense of continuity, and the disguise of the villain at the end of the take is so obvious, I started to wonder if Gaiman was being trickier than I’d given him credit for and supplying me with a red herring (unfortunately, he wasn’t).
But I did like how the story ended, as Gaiman took all of our expectations of the story and casually turned them away. Nobody doesn’t get the girl — at least, not yet. We don’t know if he lives happily ever after. The world he enters is actually bigger and more dangerous than the world he leaves, but it is still a satisfying resolution in that he finally enters it. The statements that Gaiman makes about life going on ring very true, and give the story a surprisingly bittersweet ending that elevated the book, in my opinion.
In any event, as a fan of fantasy and an admirer of Gaiman’s work, it pleased me greatly to see the book win the Newbery Award. The honour looks good on him.