Friday, January 15, 2010

Readings — The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman

The difference between a good book and a bad one can be surprisingly subtle. Between a well-structured plot and a formulaic one; between a sympathetic character and a bland nonentity. Between limpid prose and pretension. Between suspenseful writing and melodrama. Between humour that sharpens a mood and hints at depths of personality, and humour that gets in the way of the emotional core of the book and kicks the reader out of the story with excessive self-awareness.

The Graveyard Book shows Neil Gaiman coming down on the right side of all these things. One reason why is his sense for the mythic; or, more precisely, the mythopoeic. The world opens up the further into the story you go; hints and throwaway lines blossom into plots and new vistas. His main character, Bod, reacts to these things ina credible way. If not necessarily flawed in a traditional sense, he’s at least capable of being petulant or frightened.

That’s only natural, all things considered; Bod’s parents are killed in the opening pages of the story, and he’s raised by the ghosts in a local cemetery. That’s the springboard for a story that unfolds in a set of linked short stories, roughly one per year of Bod’s life (the title and structure are a deliberate nod to Kipling's Jungle Book, and in fact the novel's understated, elegant prose has the feel of a classic children's fantasy from a hundred years ago). We get to know him quite well, and to know the ghosts around him, and their different eras. Gaiman, as is his way, works in a ton of references and links to the past, without being obvious about it. One of the pleasures of the book is the way the language used by the characters from different times sounds right in their mouths.

There’s a feel about the book of ‘Harry Potter done right,’ the young boy growing over the years and gaining magic powers, living in a place both part of conventional reality and also someplace totally other. But all the things one might find lacking in the Potter books are present here: the ear for language, as noted, the sense of the mythic, an awareness of depth. Present also are the things the Potter books do well, notably intricate mysteries and a complex plot.

The book won last year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, which I mention in order to note that I saw a panel at Worldcon where a group of critics discussed the novels on the award shortlist; they felt that technically The Graveyard Book was the best-written book in the group, but expressed some reservation over the fact that the novel seemed episodic, and that it wasn’t particularly deep. I don’t think either of these criticisms is, in the long run, accurate. I think that the individual chapters are each fairly tightly bound into the fabric of the book, both in plot terms, in that they build up the true story of what’s going on with Nod and his world and the killers of his parents, and in thematic terms, in that they expand on what Nod learns in his life and how he grows and what he finds as he interacts with the world around him. Which brings me to point number two, and that is that I think in the end the book has a lot to say about identity. About time, and death, and how we construct ourselves in the shadows of the past. About learning to read, and how to read the history around us. I think a lot of Gaiman’s work plays with these themes, and to me The Graveyard Book is perhaps the most successful of his recent iterations of these tropes.

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