The Graveyard Book is a novel “for all ages” — interesting for adults and mostly safe for young readers. It’s not childish, but it’s about a child. Nobody Owens’ family are murdered on page one, and Nobody (a toddler) escapes to a graveyard before he’s killed too. There he’s given the Freedom of the Graveyard, which includes the ability to hang out with ghosts, to see in the dark, and to explore the strange worlds of the dead.
I was really interested in how this book works — how it’s structured. We begin with a giant dark problem (someone wants Nobody Owens dead) and that looms over the story driving it forward. Even if the pages don’t address the threat directly, the reader knows we’re building towards it. That gives Gaiman freedom in the first half to fill out setting and characters episodically, through disconnected adventures: falling into a ghoul-gate, finding a headstone for a witch, befriending a human girl.
These opening chapters feel more like short stories (in fact Gaiman says he started the novel with Chapter 4, the stand-alone story of Bod’s quest for a witch headstone, and only built out the rest of the story years later) and while they were excellent reading they made the novel feel only good, not great. In the second half though, after a brief interlude to remind the reader of the murderer’s existence, all of those characters and settings return, serving essential roles, pulling everything together, showing off Gaiman’s considerable talent. Everything pulls together, and this is a novel (not a collection of short stories) after all. In some cases it takes only a sentence to satisfy a thru-line, to prove that a character wasn’t just a one-off, but every one of those bookends strengthens the story.
It’s amazing how much a reader’s imagination can fill in, to build out the novel’s world. Gaiman really only invents four fantastical sites within the graveyard, and Bod uses three of them in the conclusion to orchestrate his freedom. The written world Gaiman has penned is actually quite small, but it feels much bigger. The rest is implied, even if it’s not described, and readers don’t need hand-holding to fill it in. Same goes for much of Gaiman’s dialogue — the children’s questions are often left unanswered by the adults. I wanted the adults to answer them, like Dumbledore’s end-of-novel chats in Harry Potter. But in leaving them unanswered Gaiman lets his adults preserve harder edges and his world hold darker mysteries. Besides, the point of the dialogue is the question — that’s what’s needed to develop character or plot — and refusing to answer pulls the reader deeper in.
The climax did feel rushed. After languid chapters in the relaxed world of eternal ghosts, to tie up loose ends in a few hours felt false. How do authors write with urgency and convey speed while still taking the time to properly describe the necessary action? Are there authors who do this well? Has storytelling in novels been corrupted by movies and television? I also yearned for more time in the denouement, decompressing and saying goodbye. But maybe that abruptness was deliberate: if The Graveyard Book is partly a meditation on parenting and the constant push and pull between protecting and empowering, then Bod’s “aging-out” of the graveyard should come in a rush. We’re never quite ready to grow up, but grow up we must.