An oppressive figure – chillingly illustrated by both author Neil Gaiman and, in the case of my hardback copy, artist Chris Riddell – ascends a staircase after completing three terrible acts, only to find the final vital victim is absconded; has fled his cradle oblivious to the horror lurking in his home, the dangers waiting in the night mists outside, too young to even know his own name – and you’re nobody if you have no name.
This infant totters into a place, and at a time, that some more knowledgeable persons might balk at, and encounters things which perhaps only an innocent would fail to run screaming from. And there he stays, and grows and learns, and looks out at the world, and wonders and yearns. And he doesn’t think, straight away, about what threats might lurk, their watchful eyes upon him.
It’s an odd title in a way, since there is no graveyard book in the story – it just refers to the thing in your hands. It’s the graveyard book, like that da Vinci one we all heard about, or those second difficult albums which all bands seem to produce, or one of somebody’s early, funny films. So this is almost a book without a name, which makes sense really because for the greater length of the story the protagonist has no name either, sort of. I’m still a big fan of Gaiman’s comic book work, still less so of his adult novels, but with this tale I think he continues to present some of the most fascinating and challenging stories for younger readers.
Like Coraline, this is a surprisingly dark and menacing narrative, coupled to eerie and unsettlingly expressive images, all of which remind you of how unpleasant those original cautionary fairy tales must have been before their sanitising for England’s good little ladies and gentlemen. Here we have Gaiman shucking off conventional niceness and cutting straight to the bone of a child’s growing up; discovering the complexities of relationships and the world at large, recognising good and bad influences, balancing trust, caution, bravery and fear, the acceptance of change and the development of self-awareness.
The playground is a little out of the ordinary, the teachers most uncommon, and the less beaten track passes through some very unusual territory – not for Gaiman though, who rarely leaves such places, making him our ideal guide. He continues to tease his own mythologies out of those that came before. The Graveyard Book contains a lovely story, scary and sweet, ready to be enjoyed by adults for a weird tweaking of the coming of age, and by suitably courageous youngsters tempted by darker entertainment.