Neil Gaiman’s made a living by playing with our notions of how things work.
In American Gods, he asked what would happen if the people of Earth created gods by believing in them… and then forgot them. In Neverwhere, he toyed with the idea of London Below, a subterranean community beneath the oblivious London Above. And in The Graveyard Book (the third novel of Gaiman’s I’ve read), he dabbles in another hidden world: the afterlife.
The notion this time is that when you die, you live on as a ghost in the graveyard where you’re buried. People from different eras thus haunt the same patch of land for eons. And in the case of a particular cemetery in contemporary England, that means Celts mingle with Romans, Victorians, and the odd vampire.
Into this ghoulish mix stumbles a toddler, a boy whose parents and sister have just been murdered. The ghosts of the graveyard decide to adopt and protect the child, and he grows up there with the name Bod (short for Nobody) Owens. He doesn’t get much of a traditional education, but his spectral benefactors teach him the tricks of the dead: passing through walls, fading into darkness, etc. But Bod can’t stray far from the graveyard, because the man who killed his family wants to finish the job by killing him too.
As usual, Gaiman tells his tale with whimsy and heart. And since The Graveyard Book is written for children, the story is extra charming—who doesn’t want to root for an orphan with fun powers? I found the first few chapters a little slow, though. Young Bod isn’t capable of addressing the central problem (how to avenge his family), so Gaiman takes him on a series of seemingly unrelated adventures in the graveyard. This issue of agency persists when teenage Bod is finally ready to take on his pursuer; by confining Bod to the graveyard, Gaiman prevents his protagonist from taking the fight to the assassin. Instead, it’s the assassin who finds a way to get to Bod.
But I liked the story overall. Those early adventures plant the seeds for the story’s resolution, and as Gaiman notes in his afterword, the ending serves as an allegory for how parents eventually have to let their children go (or, for young readers, how they eventually have to step out on their own). In other words, The Graveyard Book is a touching example of how fiction can help us navigate reality. I hope my daughter reads it one day.
When she’s old enough.