Scrolls Reviews – The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (ISBN 9780747594802)

Neil Gaiman’s latest children’s book is loosely based on The Jungle Book but instead of wild animals it is the ghostly residents of a sprawling old graveyard who attempt to raise, protect and educate an orphaned child.  When his parents are murdered by the sinister “man Jack” in a strikingly dark opening sequence, a toddler escapes to the local graveyard and is taken in by the long-dead but kind hearted Mr and Mrs Owens.  Christened Nobody Owens (Bod for short) he is given the “freedom of the graveyard” and the protection of the mysterious Silas.

The story unfolds as a series of episodic adventures which take place over the course of Bod’s unorthodox childhood. Neil Gaiman is an expert at crafting a sense of magical realms existing within, beyond or beneath the everyday world and that skill is once again put to good use.  In this case the usual conventions are turned upside-down, where the crumbling run-down graveyard is not a spooky environment but a (more or less) safe haven for the child and it is the outside world which offers the real threat.  It will probably not take readers long to figure out the real natures of the enigmatic Silas and the formidable Miss Lupescu, but Gaiman puts a sympathetic spin on the familiar archetypes.

Despite the unconventional set-up all the familiar elements of a coming-of-age tale are present and correct.  Bod rebels against his authority figures, gets into trouble, meets a girl and gradually begins to question his background and why he is different from those around him.  The story builds momentum in the second half as “the man Jack” comes back into Bod’s life looking to finish what he started and Bod must use the skills he has learnt during his childhood to confront the threat.

Whilst fans of Kipling’s work may find some familiar elements this is not a straightforward retelling of the Jungle Book. Instead Neil Gaiman has used the basic premise to look at themes of mortality and what it means to be alive wrapped up in a story that will appeal to children and adults alike.  The Graveyard Book is a lyrical, slightly melancholic story although it does not lack for adventure and humour.  Despite the morbid setting and undoubtedly scary moments for younger readers there is a warm (though not necessarily beating) heart at the centre of the tale.  If Neil Gaiman can make ghosts and monsters lovable there is hope for all of us.


Reviewed by Clover Winton-Polak

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