Sunday 4 October 2009

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

My goal for July was to read and review all the British Fantasy Award-nominated novels. They’re mostly still in hardback, so it could have been an expensive proposition, but as ever Birmingham’s library reservation system provided.

That did mean, however, that my copy of The Graveyard Book had been through the tender hands of one library’s teenage reading group, and it was missing pages 165 and 166. The latter was an illustration, but if anything important happened on page 165 I’m afraid I missed it.

Nobody Owens is a little boy who lives in a graveyard with lots of friendly ghosts, while the man Jack, who killed the boy’s family, searches the world to find him.

Like almost every book I’ve read by Neil Gaiman (The Wake being the painfully dull exception) this was a profound pleasure to read. The tone is intimate and friendly, charming even as it frightens. His writing seems casually brilliant, which probably means he works very, very hard to make it so good.

Gaiman acknowledges a debt to Kipling’s Jungle Book in the acknowledgments – you can see it in the title, of course, and in Nobody’s chats with the various inhabitants of the graveyard. It’s also strongly reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones, though it lacks her trademark realignments of reality. The plot is pretty much the Harry Potter series done-in-one. For me this was a slight tale told with incredible skill.

I read the edition with artwork by Dave McKean, but it wasn’t at all what you might expect. Here he uses a black ink and grey wash style that’s reminiscent of the work Scott Morse and Troy Nixey have produced for Oni. He was nominated for the British Fantasy Award for best artist for his work on this book, but lost out to Vinnie Chong.

I read quite a bit of this book while my youngest daughter was tottering around a stay-and-play session, and I had great fun asking the older children at the playgroup if they wanted to see something really scary, before showing them page 167, a scary cup of coffee! The joke didn’t quite work, though, since they all agreed that for four-year-olds hot drinks are indeed rather scary.

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, HarperCollins, hb, 307pp

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