Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Graveyard Book

It's an unexpected pleasure, writing a review of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. As I said back in December, it was my favorite book out of the ones I read on the Mock Newbery's short list, but I didn't really think it would win. I thought it was too funny, too macabre, just too different from previous winners. I couldn't be happier to have been proved wrong.

There were a lot of things that I loved in this book. The story of Nobody's childhood is wonderfully clever, but it is Gaiman's writing that really stole my heart. Combine his way with words with the British references (airing cupboards, kettles of tea, pupils instead of students, etc.), fascinating history, his humor, and the delightful illustrations by Dave McKean, and you have.....well, you have a winner.

A few examples of Gaiman's winning (and winsome) storytelling:
The child had fallen asleep in Mrs. Owens's arms. She rocked it gently, sang to it an old song, one her mother had sung to her when she was a baby herself, back in the days when men had first started to wear powdered wigs. The song went,

Sleep my little babby-oh
Sleep until you waken
When you're grown you'll see the world
If I'm not mistaken
Kiss a lover,
Dance a measure,
Find your name
and buried treasure...

And Mrs. Owens sang all that before she discovered that she had forgotten how the song ended. She had a feeling that the final line was something in the way "and some hairy bacon," but that might have been another song altogether, so she stopped and instead she sang him the one about the Man in the Moon who came down too soon, and after that she sang, in her warm country voice, a more recent song about a lad who put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and she had just started a long ballad about a young country gentleman whose girlfriend had, for no particular reason, poisoned him with a dish of spotted eels, when Silas came around the side of the chapel, carrying a cardboard box (p. 26).
Ah, I do love those weird old nursery rhymes. And powdered wigs! Hairy bacon! Not to mention the "dish of spotted eels". I can't really explain it, but Gaiman's descriptions just delight me. Even when he is talking about revolting European foods:
Miss Lupescu continued to bring Bod things she had cooked for him: dumplings swimming in lard; thick reddish-purple soup with a lump of sour cream in it; small, cold boiled potatoes; cold garlic-heavy sausages; hardboiled eggs in a grey unappetizing liquid (p. 71).
I've always loved old-fashioned names, and have kept a list of my favorites from the genealogy my grandmother drew in her spiky, shaky old lady handwriting (including Comfort Littlejohn, Mindwell Phelps, Squire Boone, Gad Noble, Sylvanus Crook, etc.). Gaiman clearly has a feel for historic names (and epitaphs) too, and has picked the best of both the graveyard and an English town for us. There's Mother Slaughter, Geo. and Dorcas Reeder, Thomes Pennyworth, Abanazer Bolger, Amabella, Portunia, and Roderick Persson, and a host of other memorable minor characters - not to mention the extraordinary Nobody Owens himself, who "could greet people politely over nine hundred years of changing manners" (p. 189).

I feel I should mention that I am not a fan of horror in general, and that reading about the first scary chapter of The Graveyard Book initially made me want to give the book a pass. And it was scary - every mother's worst nightmare, perhaps - although it was not particularly graphic. Parents might want to read the first couple of chapters (you can listen to Neil Gaiman reading it himself here), and think about their kids' particular sensitivities and fears before giving a child that is younger than say 10 or 11 years old a copy of this book.

I'm happy that my preconceptions about horror and scary stories didn't prevent me from reading The Graveyard Book, obviously, and I think that it's great that a lot of people who wouldn't think this book was right for them might give the book a chance now that it's won the Newbery.

I could go on, but I'm afraid I'm running out of words like delightful, wonderful, winsome, and the like. I will say that I first read The Graveyard Book last November, and enjoyed it just as much (if not more) upon re-reading it this week. And I still cried happy tears on the last few pages. This is one of those books that stand up to repeated re-readings - a classic, if you will. Which I guess makes it a pretty good choice for the Newbery Medal after all.

1 comment:

Amanda (the librarian) said...

Since I do a lot of my Newberys as audiobooks during my commute, I am really looking forward to this one - once I can buy it for my library! I understand Gaiman does a great job narrating the book.

I'm not much for either horror or fantasy - one of the things I love about the Newbery is that it gets me (and kids) to read things outside our favorite genres.