From the Bookshelf: The Graveyard Book

I’ve meant to read something by Neil Gaiman for years.

His writing advice is (in my personal opinion) some of the best I’ve ever come across, and has been my go-to when I need a pick-me-up. I follow him on his Tumblr and find almost everything he says to be charming, if nothing else.

More than once I’ve caught myself thinking, “I want to be that man when I grow up.” (Yes, I’m 26. But I am still very certain that I’m not a grown-up yet.)

This should all come as no real surprise, as I quote him near incessantly.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.

Some time ago, I picked up The Graveyard Book on a whim. Like I said, I’ve wanted to read Gaiman, and it was right there on a bookstore shelf. The temptation was too great, and I hold with Wilde on the matter.

(Yes, I know I said before that books hurt my hands so I mainly use a Kindle nowadays, but I simply can’t contain my lust for paper books. Now and again, I will always indulge.)

But, as with most of my collection in recent years, it sat unread for some time. If I had to wager a guess, I’d say at least six months. I kept it on a side table, and every time I saw it, I would think to myself: Soon. Not today. But soon.

(Or, as my friends might quote me, “Not today, Un Chien Andalou.” I notoriously kept the fantastic surrealist piece in my Netflix queue for over a year and would pronounce that every time I saw it.)

Finally, I’d gotten through an early copy of an authorly friend’s latest draft in the wee hours of a Saturday morning. Now, I know I’d said I hadn’t done much reading in the last eight years, and I stand by that. What I have done is a good share of critiquing. Going over an early manuscript with an editor’s eye, searching for flaws and inconsistencies, taking notes as I go.

But that hardly counts. It’s not getting sucked into the story, lost and taken far away. It’s not truly reading.

So, as I laid there next to my beloved, listening to him breathe in a steady tempo, still deep asleep, I got to thinking. About how much I’d missed books. Stories. And how long it had been since I’d been properly swept away.How long it had been since I’d read for pleasure. Since I’d been moved and consumed.

With that thought in mind, I got up, walked into the living room and pronounced, “Today is the day, Graveyard Book.” I picked it up, took it back to bed, and laid down to read.

Before my fiance even stirred, I’d devoured a third of the book. By weekend’s close, I’d finished, the last pages leaving me in a snotty mess of weeping. (Which I am in no way too proud to admit.)

I hadn’t realized how much I’d forgotten until that very moment.

I’d forgotten why I’d wanted to be a writer. What words could do to me. Where they could take me. What they could make me feel.

I’d forgotten how much I could love a character, a place, a time and an idea to the point of utter aching.

It was the beautiful agony that had been the catharsis that had gotten me through a very troubled and lonesome childhood.

And it was amazing.

The Graveyard Book is in the style of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book, and in that is more of a collection of short stories. It concerns the life of Nobody Owens, a boy taken in by the ghosts of Mr. and Mrs. Owens after the murder of his living family.

It’s said that it takes a village to raise a child, or in the case of Nobody (called Bod), a graveyard. The stories span from his infancy to fifteen, and focus on the relationships he has with the not-so-living people in his home. From his ghostly parents and neighbors; to his mysterious guardian, Silas, who may come and go as he pleases; all the way to his doggish teacher, ghouls and the night-gaunts.

Perhaps one of the things I loved most about The Graveyard Book is that, through and through, the graveyard is Bod’s home and its inhabitants are his family. He is aware that he is different—living, and from parents who were alive—and while that can sometimes make him feel a bit the stranger, it never causes him to wish for his “real parents.”

Right up to the end, Mrs. Owens is his mother. Although Bod wants closure about what happened to his living family, yes, he isn’t so consumed with their loss as to push out the family he does have.

Even when he does argue with his idolized mentor and guardian, Silas, it isn’t about being an outsider or “not really belonging.” It’s not an accusation of where his “real” family is, or knowing who he “really is.”

No, their argument is a very realistic portrayal of growing pains of 11-year-old boy taking the first tentative steps into personhood from childhood. Bod is getting older and wanting to know more than just the graveyard; he wants books and teachers whose material isn’t a century out of date. His guardian, on the other hand, is concerned with his safety. Those who killed the boy’s parents are still at large, and likely are still looking for him. Both Silas and Bod have very reasonable points, and they fight as any family might.

That meant something to me. Truly, and deeply.

As I said before, I came from a troubled childhood. My only parent was my mentally ill and abusive mother. The only other family I had were my maternal grandparents, and my supportive grandfather died when I was 13, leaving behind my equally abusive and ill grandmother.

My youth was spent in near crippling isolation, with a support system that was more akin to making deals with fae than any sort of “family.” Every request carried a hefty price, and any broken (unspoken and ever-changing) “rules” were dealt with swiftly and without mercy.

I remember so many stories, many with a young protagonist about my age, who was shown as raised in a loving home. With one or two or sometimes many people who loved them. Cared for them, did their best.

Almost inevitably, this scenario would go one of two ways.

The first was that, at some point often near the beginning, the main character would learn that the people they called “mom and dad” (or whatever variation) were not, in fact, related by blood. They had been adopted, or abandoned, or something.

Inevitably, this would end in hurt and upset, typically culminating in a fight. Our protagonist would scream and cry, and usually wrap it all up with a nice bow: that their caretakers weren’t their real family.

Or, sometimes our main character knew all along. They would start off the tale with the knowledge that they were raised by their grandparents, or parents’ friends, or neighbors or whatever.

But a driving force, buried deep in the pit of their hearts, was the question of who they really were. What their real parents were like.

Sometimes we’d even be treated to the same argument fueled by some hurt feelings that would also oft end in the quintessential “you’re not my real dad / mom / family!”

I always wanted to reach through the pages and throttle them. Then, take their place.

Here I was, trapped with that oh-so-elusive “real family”—you know, the one that shared your blood—and I was the least important thing in their world. I couldn’t have mattered less.

And there was our supposedly beloved protagonist proclaiming that their loving home was not “real” enough for them. They had everything I ever wanted, and they didn’t appreciate it.

But not Nobody Owens.

Never once—not in the heat of the moment, not as a child or a teenager, not during sorrow or anger—does Bod ever suggest that Silas or his parents aren’t his real family.

Nobody Owens was the little boy I always wanted to be and had the family I always wanted to have. Strange and strangers, but ones that loved him very much. And he, in return, was smart and clever and followed his heart. He was kind and curious. Not always right, but always well-meaning.

His parents and the residents of the graveyard were often old-fashioned and peculiar, but their first concern was always Bod’s well-being. Even when they didn’t know how to express it to the little living boy, they tried their best and did all they could. He was always first, in their eyes.

And Silas? He was… well. Firm and mysterious, vastly intelligent and smooth as silk. With just a little bit of sadness—something that I could relate to, something that echoed in myself.

(Again, I’m not too proud to say I’m just a bit in love with Silas.)

About that argument? Perhaps one of the best parts was its conclusion. Both Silas and Bod recognize how they were in the wrong, and apologize. It might be a little thing, but I got a lump in my throat to see an adult who was willing to apologize to a child, and watch them both learn and grow through the encounter.

Before anything else, I have to sing the praises for The Graveyard Book as perhaps the best and most touching show of an atypical “found” family that I’ve ever encountered. Better yet, it does it without demonizing or dismissing blood family, either.

Gaiman’s writing is, hands-down, simply stunning. His prose is crisp and clear and easy to read. There is a lyrical flow to his words that just keep you moving along, enraptured by the way they tumble together and curl around you. I honestly felt as if it was a book made to be read aloud, and I found myself stopping to recite some of the more poignant passages to my fiance.

I was blown away by the simplicity of the narrative, and remembered how powerful writing can be even when there are few words. Sometimes, that only makes it stronger.

Then, every now and again, Gaiman would slip in an image that was so sharp and keen that I didn’t even realize that it had broken the skin before I’d been lanced straight through. More than once I found my breath hitching as his words found purchase in some forgotten corner of my mind, stirring up emotions that had long been sleeping.

For the first time in years, I felt like I was 10 again, wrapped up in a book so tightly I could scarcely tell where it stopped and I began.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be quite done talking about The Graveyard Book. It’s shot its way straight up into my favorites, and will likely roost there comfortably for the rest of my life.

Perhaps my highest recommendation is this: in the weeks since I finished those last pages, I’ve found myself thinking, I want to know what happens next! … only to find myself so sorely sorry that I’d finished it.

One thing is certain. I’m definitely reading more Gaiman, and soon.

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