In this ingenious and captivating reimagining of Rudyard Kipling’s classic adventure The Jungle Book, Neil Gaiman tells the unforgettable story of Nobody Owens, a living, breathing boy whose home is a graveyard, raised by a guardian who belongs neither to the mortal world nor the realm of the dead. Among the mausoleums and headstones of his home, Bod experiences things most mortals can barely imagine. But real, flesh-and-blood danger waits just outside the cemetery walls: the man who murdered the infant Bod’s family will not rest until he finds Nobody Owens and finishes the job he began many years ago.
The Graveyard Book is one of a number of works by Neil Gaiman that I frequently heard about, even before I was a fan of his. This was one of the reasons why I chose to read it next amongst the works of his I have. I’d thought I had a general idea of what to expect from it going in, but that changed a little when I discovered it’s a re-imagining of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Unfortunately, I’ve only really experienced the Disney adaptations of that story, as I expect is the case with most people, but that didn’t stop this knowledge from influencing my reading experience.
Much of this influence was in how I viewed characters, many of whom are not far off conceptually from their jungle counterparts. Others I was left wondering at the parallels. I can’t entirely speak to how close the actual events were between the two books, but the general idea of the story did inform me on some themes and plot directions to expect in The Graveyard Book. While I would have preferred not having a general idea of where the story would be going, the book was far from spoiled by this. Many of the plot points were still vastly different than what I could have expected.
Something that especially resonates with me about this book is its intended audience, which particularly includes people in the young adult range. I’m not in that demographic, but something I’ve been nostalgic about lately is the idea of horror geared toward younger audiences, which I’ve found to be more absent these days. This book is not strictly horror, mind you, but it still deals with a lot of dark themes about violence, loss, the paranormal, and even eldritch forms in a way that’s digestible to younger readers without sugar-coating everything. There are moments where characters suffer fates worse than death, a little disturbing if you think too much about it, but they skirt around showing outright violence. It appeals from nostalgia, but it’s something I still want to praise the book for.
That all being said, I do prefer Gaiman’s more mature work. I think this book is great, but for me it did follow a lot of the trappings of young adult fiction in a way that prevented it from gripping me like other books of his have. It follows these trappings in a more well crafted way than most, but nevertheless.
With a solid narrative through-line, the novel is broken up into chapters that also work as self-contained short stories about periods of our protagonist Bod’s life. Each feels important to both his development as a person and tying into the resolution of the story. My mileage varied with each however, as some chapters stood out a lot more to me and others were good but ultimately felt a little more like filler. I was especially disappointed about a particular character introduced earlier on who apparently remained and important figure in Bod’s life, but is only really mentioned in passing after the fact.
That being said, most of the characters were quite evocative: Silas, Liza, and the Sleer particularly standing out for me. The previous two — his undead guardian and the spirit of a young witch he befriends, respectively — are more complex relationships in Bod’s life, both guiding yet challenging him in different ways. The Sleer is an otherworldly being that is not quite malevolent, yet vaguely threatening and serpentine, that Bod visits at several points throughout the story. It is a simple creature, yet left a hushed, slithering impression upon the pages that I adored.
The Graveyard Book may not be among my favourite of Neil Gaiman’s novels, but that says nothing of its quality. It’s a beautifully Gothic story with a lot of heart, despite it’s mostly deceased cast of characters, exploring a lot of somber, dreary themes with a gleam of childlike hope and optimism. I recommend it very much, especially to any lover of serenely gloomy and light macabre stories, perfect for the season of mists.