The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman



I’ve mentioned before (here) that Gaiman is a troublesome author for me, or he was, and The Graveyard Book was where this trouble began. It was one of the first books I’d ever pre-ordered and I was heartily disappointed when I finished reading it a few hours after collecting it from the bookstore. I felt, at the time, that there had been the beginnings to a lot of clever ideas, but that they never went anywhere; and I was furious about the Jacks.

This time round I enjoyed it far more than I expected. I appreciated the way the story was knitted together and its episodic structure, enjoyed a couple of pleasant surprises and came away feeling I’d been quite unfair about it back in 2008.

Go figure.

One of my very favourite things about Gaiman’s writing in The Graveyard Book is that there is a lot he leaves up to the reader. Take that opening scene in which the man Jack stands on the landing in a house and wipes his knife clean because “the knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet”. Without any mention of blood or murder the reader still knows, with a little supressed shudder, that some people have died in their own home at this man’s hands. There’s nothing gruesome in the words on the page, but our own imaginations make it so. It’s a great opening scene. And Gaiman continues to say very little about certain things throughout the book. Certain things are not said about the Lady on the Grey, or about Silas. Certain things are not said about the Sleer. Certain things are not said about San Francisco. And yet all these unsaid things make shapes in the reader’s mind so that when something is said, we know why; we understand so much without ever having been explicitly told.

Both this and the episodic nature of the story encourage a slower reading pace and I wonder if I didn’t appreciate a lot of what Gaiman was doing the first time round because I read the book so quickly. This time I enjoyed the short story quality of the chapters, with Bod aging a couple of years between each and learning a little more about life and his own story all the time. I particularly liked how he makes friends with different inhabitants of the graveyard at different ages. He cannot remain close friends with ten-year old Fortinbras Bartleby when he grows older because they no longer quite see eye to eye, but then Thackeray Porringer’s books become interesting where before they were not, and later the tales of Alonso Tomás García Jones gain relevance. None of his graveyard friends can age along with him, but still he has company throughout his childhood.

The more overtly supernatural elements of the book are where Gaiman’s imagination really kicks in though. Chapter 3, entitled ‘The Hounds of God’, is a glorious romp through a ghoul-gate into the world of ghouls, night-gaunts and werewolves. It’s gleefully spooky and Miss Lupescu is a marvellous Mary Poppins/Nanny McPhee-ish sort of character whose transformation (both physically and in Bod’s estimation) is terribly satisfying reading. Then, of course, there is The Sleer. The Sleer occupies the same sort of territory as Miéville’s Weaver and I hope that younger readers have been/are/will always be as scared and fascinated with it as me. Again it’s the things Gaiman doesn’t say about The Sleer that build it up in the reader’s mind and this oldest occupant of the graveyard harks back to all those things that scare us in the dark – the small noises we cannot place, and the sense that something or someone is there.

And perhaps my favourite moment in the book: The Macabray. The townspeople and the residents of the graveyard, all being swept up in an Old Town tradition they can’t explain, coming together to dance the Macabray with the Lady on the Grey, and everyone wearing a white flower from the graveyard. The whole chapter thrums to the song that we catch along with Bod in snippets:

“One and all will hear and stay

Come and dance the Macabray.”

And the action rises and falls with the music that draws living and dead alike to the town square to dance together, all caught under the same spell despite calling it “stuff and nonsense” and claiming they “do not believe in ghosts”. It’s a lovely piece of writing in and of itself and captures the spirit of the whole book – the ordinary world always reasserting itself over the supernatural that weaves in and round and through it.

As well as the Hugo Award The Graveyard Book won the Carnegie Megal, the Newberry Medal and the Locus Award for Best Young Adult Book. The other Hugo nominations in 2008 were Little Brother by Cory Doctorow, Anathem by Neal Stephenson (both on my TBR), Saturn’s Children by Charles Stross (which I’ve read and reviewed here) and Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (part of the Old Man’s War series, of which I’ve read only the first book so far – reviewed here). Gaiman himself thought Anathem should have won according to this article in The Guardian.

I have no thoughts on whether The Graveyard Book should or should not have won. It seems to me that picking a book out of any shortlist must be a slightly haphazard affair. I also think there is no such thing as a best book when comparing fiction because every book gives you something different, in a different style, with a different intention. But if winning a prize means that more people read a particular title, then we could do a lot worse than for The Graveyard Book to stick around in the human consciousness.




  1. Wonderful review!
    I liked The Graveyard Book when I read it ages ago, and appreciated the whimsical, fairy-tale feel of it, but I also couldn’t help but notice the episodic structure and a rather weak conclusion; though to be fair – compared to other Gaiman endings it was still pretty decent 😀

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  2. I must reread this. I also seem to have picked up a graphic novel version in the belief it was complete, but it turns out it’s only Volume One. I had déjà-vu with chapter one because Neil Himself had actually included it in a short story collection before the novel came out. So, plenty of reasons to pick it up again despite its episodic nature! Good review, by the way, does the trick of encouraging me to revisit it.

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  3. It’s nice to hear that you got to enjoy it more than the first time. I feel like a lot of his work is a hit or miss type of deal. His writing remains quite fascinating and his imagination even more though. The Graveyard Book will probably be one of the next Gaiman novels I’ll be reading for sure though. Thanks for sharing! 😀

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    • Thank you for reading!
      You’re right, he’s quite an uneven author, but with an incredible imagination. I feel like he’s one of those people who can be creative in all directions, if that makes any sense?
      I certainly recommend The Graveyard Book, but go in knowing it has that episodic structure. 🙂

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