Great books are like a hike up a steep hill with a spectacular view. The heart rate climbs. Breathing quickens. The desire to finish grows, along with the effort put forth to reach that end. And the payoff is remarkable. The Graveyard Book does all these things. I’ve read and reread and considered it greatly for this review. The more I do, the more I’m convinced Neil Gaiman’s book is an incredible choice for the 2009 Newbery Medal.
As I read The Graveyard Book, I felt there were four distinct parts.
Part One: Chapter 1, How Nobody Came to the Graveyard, begins with the creepiest opening in recent memory. "There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." The whole page is black, save the chapter title, that one line of text, and the knife-wielding hand. A baby boy, 18 months old, has crawled out of his bed. He proceeds down the stairs, through the front door, into the street, and up the hill to protective hands of the graveyard residents.
His family is murdered by the man Jack. The boy is unharmed.
Part Two: Chapters 2-5 each read as a short story - indeed, Chapter 4, The Witch's Headstone, was first published as a short story - and each chapter gives important information about the boy's life in the graveyard. Adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Owens, longtime occupants of the graveyard, and looking like nobody in particular, the boy becomes Nobody Owens, Bod for short.
Five-year-old Bod meets a friend, Scarlett, who is visiting the graveyard, now more park than cemetary. Readers learn the differences between a normal child and one granted the Freedom of the Graveyard. Readers are also introduced to the Sleer, an ancient graveyard resident.
Six-year-old Bod is introduced to this graveyard’s ghoul-gate (every graveyard has a ghoul-gate), what lies beyond the gate, and the lengths to which the dead will go to preserve his life.
A ten-year-old Bod meets a resident witch and begins a friendship. He continues his education, both academic and spiritual. He witnesses and participates in the Danse Macabre.
Part Three: A brief interlude, The Convocation, reminds readers that the man Jack still exists and still wants – needs, in fact – Bod dead. His business associates, for lack of a better term, remind him of his failure and responsibility to finish the business he started.
Part Four: Chapters 6-8 read more as the novel I expected. Bod makes more and more excursions into the world outside the graveyard where, for the most part, he is unprotected. He goes to school, meets bullies, new friends, old friends, and police officers. But all these outside experiences, though beneficial to a boy quickly becoming a young man, make it increasingly difficult for Bod to remain anonymous and hidden from the man Jack.
Anticipation that steadily builds and an inescapable sense of dread work together so readers don’t see the climax coming as much as they feel it coming. So get yourself a copy of The Graveyard Book, block out a chunk of time, and set your bookmark aside.
And make sure the lights are on. Brightly.