This is the fourth book by Neil Gaiman I read and I'm seeing a pattern in his books more and more. Which is good, because it's the first book of his I'm reviewing*.
The Graveyard Book starts with a very evocative first scene, of the murder by the man Jack of an unsuspecting family. The description gave me goosebumps of pleasure, and it was a murder scene, for a children's story, for heaven's sake.
"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."
"The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of night-time mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door."
The story is not about the man Jack, though, it is about the baby who escaped death by luck (I feel a urge to snort at the déjà-vu of this) and by some sense of adventure that involved stairs and a dirty nappy. Somehow the baby finds his way to a graveyard, with a murderer on his trail as soon as the man Jack realises his target has gone taking a midnight stroll.
In the graveyard, the baby boy meets ghosts. Long story short, they take a liking to the toddler, and there's a debate all night long between the ghost community to decide if they are going to keep him or not, while to Mrs Owens, the honorable dead lady who found him, it's already quite clear that she's going to be a mother, and Mr Owens a father, to the living baby.
Then there's Silas. Mysterious, taciturn, composed Silas, who is not a ghost and is able to leave the graveyard, and to trick a man Jack.
He did not expect what he actually heard, a voice, silky, smooth, saying :
'Can I help you ?'
The man Jack was tall. This man was taller. The man Jack wore dark clothes. This man's clothes were darker. People who noticed the man Jack when he went about his business - and he did not like to be noticed - were troubled, or made uncomfortable, or found themselves unaccountably scared. The man Jack looked at the stranger, and it was the man Jack who was troubled.
If the Owenses are to be the baby's surrogate parents, Silas is going to be his guardian.
And so it is that Nobody 'Bod' Owens' strange life begins.
The development in this one is slow. Following the prologue, my assumption was that we'd meet Bod all grown up into his teens, same as he looks on the cover. Wrong. The summary doesn't hint at this detail, so I thought I should make it clear to anyone expecting a fast pace. You get it, but not till the last third of the book.
The same thing happened for me with Stardust and had me wrong-footed. This time on the contrary, I was familiar enough with the idea that it might happen to enjoy my read anyway.
So what happens instead ? We share Bod's life from childhood to his fifteens, with experiences that don't always look like they contribute to the plot at first, while they actually do, as you discover later on. See, the boy isn't allowed to leave the graveyard, for there are bad things out there, bad things like his family's murderer, who would be able to find him if he ventured out. Being the only living person in a place full of the dead and of Silas (who is neither dead nor living, and not that much of an exuberant man anyway) can be quite lonely for a little boy, so Bod basically asks questions, tries to make friends, and occasionnaly gets in trouble.
Meanwhile, time is ticking, and a man Jack is getting impatient.
Here's for the plot. Let's keep it there and have a look at some good and bad points instead.
The setting is both good and bad to me. Good, because of the originality of making the graveyard the core of a children's story and because I happen to like the creepy factor (I'm a Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline type of person, I like creepy elements delivering a mildly happy message. Mindless gore on the other hand ? Not my thing). Bad, because there isn't enough creepiness for my taste. The ghosts are relatively harmless busybodies, when they're not doing some haunting, and more often than not their mood-swings could do with a therapist.
This leads me to two other good points : Firstly, some of the characters. This is mostly subjective on my part, but I find some characters hold more depht than others. I particularly like Silas, the witch Liza Hempstock, Scarlett, and Jay Frost. Frost's stumbling and stammering is fun to read and something I can relate with. Silas...hnn, Silas, he's a good example of an authority figure who is both stern and friendly. I love Silas.
Secondly, the haunting hobbies, which, and this is the good part, are not solely limited to the ghosts. Thanks to his rather peculiar status, Bod gets to learn the Fade, the Fear, and whatnot. They are as much fun as they sound, and they get in handy (see the getting in trouble part).
I actually quite like Bod in the last part of the book, when he sounds less like a child throwing a tantrum and more like a groying boy - teen, whatever - who is starting to use his brain and even shows a nasty streak,but it's toward baddies and they're no better themselves, so that evens things out.
But. There's a but, yes. See...the backstory is very sloppy. Too sloppy, and I expected more from an established author like Neil Gaiman. I don't know how to say this without spoilers. Okay, so side-characters get up to a battle/hunt/something against the baddies which feels like it's somehow very important and should be the moment when the hero normally save the day but, nope. They do all the work, may or may be an organization of Good Guys fighting the Bad Guys since way too many centuries for it to be decent anymore, may or may not die in the process, but we don't know what actually happens because what little we glimpse of the action is screened off. And we don't know who half these guys are. It involves a winged Assyrian-mummy carrying a pig around somehow. I don't know, okay.
It being a kids' book doesn't excuse the huge plot hole. Mr. Gaiman knows this, Coraline is an all-around quite decent story in that regard. So, why does this happen here ? I don't know. But that's why I can say that I appreciated the book despite the slow pace, but that it isn't a great story, not for me.
So, creative, whimsy story, some good character development, some less good characther development, slow-paced, could be scarier, sloppy backstory.
One last thing : Poets are crap at giving advice. If a poet advises you do something, keep calm and do the opposite.
* Little white lie : I reviewed Stardust on GR a few months ago when I'd just discovered you could do this, and back then I wasn't sure how to review at all. I gave my opinion on the book, but there were several things I could have analysed or pointed out that I did not.