The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman, tells the story of Bod Owens, a boy who is raised in a graveyard. His entire family is killed when he’s a toddler and he himself escapes only by lucky accident. When he wanders into the local cemetery later that night, the resident ghosts take pity on the child and grant him the “freedom of the cemetery.” The Owenses, a kindly ghost couple from the 18th century, become his new parents, and a mysterious spectral being named Silas his guardian.
You might think a book about such a situation would be morbid but in it doesn’t feel that way at all, largely because Gaiman writes his characters with a lot of warmth and generosity. The ghosts are regular, pleasant people, for the most part, and treat Bod with more kindness than he ever finds in the world of the living. For his part, Bod helps the ghosts as well, giving the Owenses the chance to be parents that they never had in real life, finding a proper headstone for a witch burned at the stake in the 1600s, and providing a playmate to children who died young.
The main point of fascination in the book is just how the afterlife works, and Gaiman does not disappoint in either quotidian life or mythology. We meet an endless succession of graveyard denizens from different eras going about their business, each with his own archaic vocabulary and worldview, who together make up an insular but complete mini-town of the dead. Then there are ghouls who enter the cemetery through a particular unkempt grave, an ancient demon far beneath the hill who has guarded an ancient king’s treasure for 10,000 years, and all sorts of other mystical creatures and spirits operating in the next plane.
Eventually, Bod grows up and must venture out into the world of the living, where he discovers the man who killed his family is still on the hunt for him. I leave the why, and what Bod does about it, for the reader to find out, but I will mention that the things he learned to do from the dead in the cemetery–fading from the view of the living, entering dreams, and other exotic powers–give him a fighting chance against the sort of ruthless foe who has no qualms about killing a small child.
I would recommend this book to anybody with a taste for fantasy. The writing is beautiful without being ornate, the subject matter fascinating, the tone dignified. It is YA and thus aimed at teen-agers, but I see no reason an adult of any age wouldn’t enjoy it. For that matter, I think the material is safe enough for more mature younger readers as well, say an eight-year old who has made it through The Hobbit. Rather than being scary, the book really demystifies life after death, and may even be a comfort to an older child with a lot of questions about death and what comes after. I previously knew Gaiman only from his Sandman comics, and am happy to see his talent translate so readily to prose as well.