Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review - The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Novel

I've said in the past that despite my appreciation for Neil Gaiman he recent output has been a bit repetitive. He tends to go back to the same broad concepts repeatedly and so while he may do a great job of telling the story I can't help but say, "You've already told us that one!" As a result I wasn't expecting much going into The Graveyard Book. As a YA novel there's practically a license to reuse old material and YA usually translates to "watered down for the kids". I was half right on that. The Graveyard Book isn't the equal of Gaiman's books created for adults; still, it is very good at what it set out to be.

Nobody was a toddler when his entire family was murdered and he wandered into the graveyard to be adopted by ghosts who live there. He grows up under their protection and has adventures in the magical world that this old graveyard contains.

It might be easier to think of this book as an anthology. Each chapter is its own effectively self contained story as Nobody and a new friend explore a Celtic burial mound or Nobody attempts to find a headstone for a witch who was buried without one. It's an episodic format common to children's books and while I won't complain about that format I will say that there's far too few episodes.

The YA market calls for shorter books for shorter attention spans. That's where the one adventure per chapter format comes from. The problem is that The Graveyard Book is just eight chapters long and that last chapter is a denouement for the entire coming-of-age story. That makes the book far too short (there's a phrase you won't find me saying often). As an adult reader it took me a bit more than two hours to read the entire thing.

If Gaiman was a terrible writer than this length wouldn't have bothered me. Gaiman is a good storyteller and I kept getting glimmers of it in The Graveyard Book that are constantly cut off before they can fully develop. You can see the threads where there's obvious places to insert further stories into the book. It's very common for characters to be given a grand introduction and then completely abandoned. Nobody's adopted ghostly parents adopt him and then effectively vanish for the rest of the novel. So much is left undeveloped that it makes The Graveyard Book feel half-finished.

Then there's the plot thread that runs through the book regarding the killer of Nobody's family. About three-quarters of the way through the book it takes a sharp left into weirdness and concludes so poorly that I was shocked. It was as though Gaiman said to himself, "I need a big villain for this book!" and so threw in a bland action scene for a climax. It's completely different in tone from the rest of the book. Even with occasional dropping of hints the conclusion still felt like it came out of left field. The entire climax could have been skipped with the only real downside being making an already too short book even shorter.

The Graveyard Book is one of those instances where I have to acknowledge that I'm not the audience for it. While I may have found it to be a bit flat I would have loved the novel if I had read it when I was ten. My ten year old self isn't writing this review (you can tell because it isn't a stream of consciousness rambling that compares the book to cartoons I just watched) so I have to conclude by saying The Graveyard Book left me lukewarm; what there was of it was decent but it was so shallow that it felt more like an outline than a novel. On the other hand I may give a copy or two out at Christmas because I know some ten year olds who will love it.