Monday 1 November 2010

The Graveyard Book

This post was originally written on 5th April, 2010.

In his Acknowledgements, Neil Gaiman cites Kipling’s The Jungle Book as an influence of his The Graveyard Book (note the similarity between Kipling’s and Gaiman’s titles) but there are definitely other hypo-texts, which I will mention presently. The Newberry-award winning Graveyard Book (2008), following the Victorian bildungsroman genre, is about an orphaned baby who is raised by ghosts after his architect father, publisher mother and elder sister (aged 7) are mercilessly killed. Apart from his adoptive parents (the long-dead couple Mister and Mistress Owens, who were childless in their own life), he also has a guardian called Silas, a much nicer uncle figure than the one in J. Sherdian Fanu’s Uncle Silas, who promises to take care of him until he becomes of age. Silas has no reflection, he ‘consumed only one food’ (p. 22) and he is neither living nor dead. His house is ‘a long, long way from here [...] There have been problems in my native land’ (p. 283). If you are thinking about a vampire originated from Europe you are probably right, although the word is never mentioned in the book. Our protagonist calls the graveyard home; it is not just any graveyard but one that is modelled on the Highgate Cemetery (it’s revealed in the acknowledgements that Audrey Niffenegger, author of The Time Traveller’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, the latter also set in Highgate, acted as Gaiman’s graveyard guard), where we visited a few months ago on a chilly day. The fact that we have actually been there made the reading experience additionally eerie and therefore extra enjoyable.

I won’t say too much about the story because I think you should read it yourself. The following are just some musings.

A young boy lurking around a graveyard certainly evokes the famous first chapter of Dickens’s Great Expectations where Pip, seemingly the only alive creature, meets the fearsome convict and future benefactor Magwitch. The inhabitants of the graveyard call the protagonist of The Graveyard Book ‘Nobody Owens’, the name ‘Nobody’ reminding us of another famous ‘Nobody’ in the Western literary canon: Odysseus from Homer’s epic poem. Odysseus effaces his identity and calls himself ‘Nobody’ when dealing with the Cyclops Polyphemus, cleverly escaping death, and in The Graveyard Book the more comic side of the name is equally underlined. When confronted by a loathsome classmate, who says, ‘You don’t have any friends.’ Bod (short for ‘Nobody’) responds, ‘I didn’t come here for friends, [...] I came here to learn.’ The girl snorts at this answer: ‘Do you know how weird that is?’ ‘Nobody comes to school to learn. I mean, you come because you have to’ (p. 178). Also, in the book, we see Bod reading Robinson Crusoe. As the only living being in the graveyard most of the time, Bod’s genealogy can perhaps be traced back to that first stranded fictional character dreamt up by Defoe. But perhaps the graveyard is not quite an isolated island, as at one point Bod ‘wondered if there were still deserted islands in the world, like the one on which Robinson Crusoe had been shipwrecked. He could go and live on one of those’ (p. 182). Of course, being the only live boy in the graveyard, Bod is famous, much like Harry Potter; and indeed even inhabitants of other graveyards are delighted to see him. After hearing his name, for example, an awe-struck girl ghost says, ‘The live boy? From the big graveyard on the hill? Really?’ (p. 175) While students in Hogwarts learn Transfiguration, Defence Against the Dark Arts, Charms, Potions, Divination, Care of Magical Creatures, Flying and Apparition, our protagonist in The Graveyard Book studies Frightening, Dreamwalking, Visitation and Sliding & Fading from his ghostly teachers. The Gothicity of the book (apart from the obvious cemetery setting) is also suggested by the several references to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the late Victorian gothic story by Robert Louis Stevenson. Lastly, Chris Riddell's contemporary illustrations (unfortunately in my edition they are not done by the marvellous Dave McKean but you can see some by him here) look back to those indispensible illustrations commonly found in nineteenth-century serialised fictions. Placed at the beginning of each chapter of The Graveyard Book, Riddell’s visuals act as welcome introduction to the events which will unfold in the following pages.

The graveyard dwellers’ diverse historical and temporal backgrounds provide some hilarious moments in the book. Mrs Owens, for example, not having heard about the tropical fruit banana in her probably pre-Empire days, is much amused by it: ”Ba-na-na,’ she said, dubiously. ‘Never heard of them. Never. What’s it taste like?’ (p. 22). On another occasion, a ghost poet Nehemian Trot (died in 1774) gives romantic advice to Bod: ‘Oh! You must go to her and implore her. You must call her your Terpsichore, your Echo, your Clytemnestra. You must write poems for her, mighty odes — I shall help you write them — and thus — and only thus — will you win your true love’s heart.’ (p. 216). My favourite, however, is when a ghost called Bartelmy describes Bod’s girl friend Scarlett’s face thus: ‘thou dost have a face like unto a squished plum’ (p. 37). Lastly, Gaiman makes fun of historians, presenting a character called Mother Slaughter on whose headstone, due to weathering, only one word remains: LAUGH. This mystery ‘had puzzled the local historians for over a hundred years’ (p. 279).

We are talking about a graveyard here; inevitably there are many headstones. I am rather fascinated by the words people put on them (my most favourite is still Emily Dickinson‘s extremely succinct and urgent “Called Back”) and Gaiman satisfies my curiosity by writing quite a few headstone epitaphs:
  • Doctor Trefusis (1870-1936, May He Wake to Glory), p. 87
  • Thomas Pennyworth (here he lyes in the certainty of the moft glorious refurrection), p. 95
  • Miss Liberty Roach (What she spent is lost, what she gave remains with her always, Reader be Charitable), p. 129
  • Digby Poole (1785-1860, As I Am So Shall You Be), p. 152
  • Miss Euphemia (1861-1883, She Sleeps, Aye, Yet She Sleeps With Angels), p. 163
  • Roderick Persson and his wife Amabella, and also his second wife, Portunia (They Sleep To Wake Again), p. 173
  • Thomas R. Stout (1817-1851, Deeply regretted by all who knew him), p. 195
  • Majella Godspeed, Spinster of this Parish (1791-1870, Lost to All But Memory), p. 206
  • Here lie the mortal remains of Nehemiah Trot POET 1741-1774 SWANS SING BEFORE THEY DIE, p. 216
  • Alonso Thomas Garcia Jones (1837-1905, Traveller Lay Down Thy Staff)
My favourite quote? At the beginning of the book, the toddler Bod somehow gets out of his cot and unwittingly escapes being murdered. The following describes the situation: ‘he half climbed, half toppled over the railing and out of the cot. [...] He was surprised when he hit the floor, but he did not cry out: if you cried they came and put you back in your cot.’ (p. 6)

Indeed, there are times for crying, but there are also times for shutting up, enduring pain and getting on with life. Even a toddler knows this.

12 Responses “The Graveyard Book” →

Gontran [Link]
April 5, 2010
[BEWARE!!! There's a SPOILER included in this comment!!]
I liked the fact that, despite its Gothic setting, ghost, vampire and werewolf characters, and the cameo of Lovecraft‘s ghouls and night-gaunts, it was still mostly about a kid’s learning about life, wandering and playing, making friends, interacting with his foster family and guardians, and so on; which made me think of great classics of children’s literature which I enjoyed very much, like Huckleberry Finn or The Wind in the Willows, where adventures are really a pretext to show in a very compelling way those aspects of real life. It was touching, and humane, I thought, rather than a geek’s fantasy… And I really felt like reading a “new ‘great classic’”.

And so, I was quite disappointed when the murderer of Bod’s parents was revealed to have killed them because of… a millenia-old-secret-society-of-sorcerers-who-have-infiltrated-all-the-governments-in-the-world-and-who-are-sooooooo-eviiiil-and-who-all-are-enigmatically-called-”Mr-Thing”-or-”Mr-Stuff”. I found it ultra-geeky, quite cliché and ludicrous, and completely out of place. There’s a X-Files-like, government/aliens-plot, secret society which is quite cliché in American Gods, but they’re definitely appropriate in that story: they’re one of the embodiments of modern myths who are featured in the novel, as the rivals of ancient mythological gods.

Whereas I can’t understand what the hell such characters have to do with a story like The Graveyard Book‘s. I find them ridiculous in there.

Apart from that, I like the book very much. And I see that you did, too.

April 5, 2010
[More spoilers.]
The ending is a bit sad, actually. Like Alice who must leave Wonderland or the world of the Looking Glass at the end of the day, Bod also leaves the graveyard, ‘for the world is a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries, new friends to make, old friends to rediscover, mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion’ (pp. 288-289). Narnia, Peter Pan …. Once the child characters in these stories ‘grow up’, they must accept the realities of adulthood and also often lose certain abilities: to fantasise, to wonder, to imagine. For example, in The Graveyard Book, when Bod grows older, he has difficulty seeing the dead & seeing in the dark, both which he could do well when he was younger.

April 5, 2010
Yeah, well, I think it goes with the idea of writing any coming-of-age story (or “bildungsroman”, as you said).

sami Alam
April 5, 2010
wow… such a wonderful post…
outstanding balance of lines and words….
Learnt a lot from you….
visit mine… & plz plz plz post your comments….
Thank you…
I’ll be in touch…

April 5, 2010
“The Graveyard Book” is quite good. I’ve enjoyed reading Neil Gaiman’s books immensely. I’d be hard pressed to choose a favorite among them. “American Gods” “Coraline” “Neverwhere” “Anansi Boys” “Stardust” “Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders” “Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions” The list of his fictions goes on and on, each better than the last. And let us not forget his “Sandman” series.

Gaiman’s writing is excellent. I have never regretted buying his books. I’m sure I will continue to reread them (a sure sign to me that a book is good is if I want to reread it)

Still, I have to agree with Gontran about the “bad guy” Secret Society aspect of “the Graveyard Book” it’s rather hokey and a bit of a letdown. Gaiman does like his high drama, but it does not seem to work quite as well in “The Graveyard Book” as it does in say “Stardust” or “Neverwhere”

When It comes to a good book about the graveyard, I’m reminded of, what to me is the classic, “A Fine and Private Place” by Peter S. Beagle (also Author of “The Last Unicorn”)
Here are a couple of short quotes from near the beginning:

“Death is like life in a lot of ways,” he said thoughtfully. “The power to see clearly doesn’t always change people. The wise in life sometimes become wiser in death. The petty in life remain petty. The dead change their address, not their souls.”

“There is loneliness, though. The dead are very lonely for a while, very bewildered, very frightened. The gap that separates them from the living is as wide as the gap that separates the living from each other; wider I think. They wander as helplessly through the dark city as they did through the cities of stone, and finally they find a quiet bed and try to sleep.”

” I like to help them. I like to be here when they come, to calm them and ease their spirits. Someone to talk to, you might say. People have gone mad looking for someone to talk to. We talk, or we sit and play chess… or I read to them. Very little things, Michael, and only for a little while. Soon they drift away, and where they go I cannot follow.”
– “A Fine and Private Place” Peter s. Beagle

In some ways Beagle’s book is not as exciting as Gaiman’s, but it seems to me more appropriate when it comes to those living among the dead. Still I’m happy to have read both books.

April 5, 2010
The Sandman is one of my favourite stories. I love Gaiman’s works and have read many. I am glad you are a fan too, Yamabuki.

April 6, 2010
thx very much for sharing this!

Shadowy figure
April 6, 2010
I used to have a friend with whom I walked at graveyards. During the day, just for fun. Some graveyards are really nice places to visit, as they’re well-kept, spacious and clean and yet not too crowded. Not too crowded by the living at least…

April 6, 2010
Yes, SF, I remember that story. “Don’t you remember? I thought it was quite nice, like going to a park.”

April 7, 2010
I really enjoyed reading this, especially as my previous encounters with Gaiman have been quite pleasant. However, the first thing that came to mind when reading the review was Peter S. Beagle’s “A Fine and Private Place” – and I see I am not the only one. After having read that I cannot walk across a cemetery without imagining how it would be to live there…

April 7, 2010
Oh dearest Adrian, I’m so glad you’ve found me finally! I should look up A Fine and Private Place.

April 7, 2010
Well, here I am!
Please do! It is one of the books I truly love. Yes, maybe here and there things could have been done a little better – but then I do not know many authors who, when writing their first novel at the tender age of 19 came up with something as fascinating as this. I also like his other books; Folk of the Air is quite unusual too. The Last Unicorn of course is the best known one…

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