“Scarlett said to Bod, ‘You’re brave. You are the bravest person I know, and you are my friend. I don’t care if you are imaginary.’ Then she fled down the path back the way they had come, to her parents and the world.”
Nobody Owens, Bod for short, first comes to the graveyard as a toddler, having escaped his house after his entire family was brutally and (for the moment) inexplicably murdered. A ghost couple, the Owens, take him in and raise him, along with a guardian named Silas (who isn’t a ghost, but isn’t living. More on him later). Bod grows up in the graveyard, protected by the ghosts from the man who murdered his family, and the book follows him from ages one to fifteen. During the story he goes to school briefly, makes a living friend (that’s her in the above quote) and occasionally ventures outside the graveyard, but the majority of the action takes place inside the sprawling, complex cemetery. It’s a ghost story, with lots of good scary-exciting parts that I imagine would have thrilled me as a small child, like this part:
“One grave in every graveyard belongs to the ghouls. Wander any graveyard long enough and you will find it – waterstained and bulging, with cracked or broken stone, scraggly grass or rank weeks about it, and a feeling, when you reach it, of abandonment. It may be colder than the other gravestones, too, and the name on the stone is all too often impossible to read. If there is a statue on the grave it will be headless or so scabbed with fungus and lichens as to look like a fungus itself. If one grave in a graveyard looks like a target for petty vandals, that is the ghoul-gate. If the grave makes you want to be somewhere else, that is the ghoul-gate.
There was one in Bod’s graveyard.
There is one in every graveyard.”
But to dismiss this story as just a ghost story for children is to downplay the genius of what Gaiman is doing with this book. By telling the story of an orphaned boy raised by ghosts, Neil Gaiman has created a beautiful, perfect parable about the transition from childhood to adulthood. This isn’t a ghost story – this is a book about how to grow up. (okay, it’s also a really really good ghost story.)
Another thing I loved about it was the potential other stories that you could see within this story. Bod is the main character, and we see almost every scene through his eyes exclusively, but the setting and the characters are all so good that Bod didn’t even need to be the main character, and the result would have been an equally wonderful (but vastly different) story. Other potential narrators include Miss Lupescu, Bod’s tutor; Liza Hempstock, who was drowned and burned as a witch; and Silas, Bod’s mysterious guardian. If Silas were the main character the book would have to be 500 pages and would probably be much sadder, so since this book is aimed at children Bod had to be the protagonist.
Which isn’t to say that Bod doesn’t deserve to be the main character. In fact, he’s equally as fascinating as Silas because Bod isn’t, strictly speaking, good. He’s clever and polite and kind-hearted and brave, but it’s only when we see him interacting with other humans that we see there’s something slightly off about Bod. He doesn’t exactly think or act the way most humans do, and there’s always a clear disconnect between him and any live characters he encounters. This is all subtle and masterfully done, and now I just want to keep reading about Bod and his adventures for the rest of the character’s life.
In short, I demand a sequel, Mr. Gaiman. Or a prequel. Or do the Atwood thing and tell the same story from different perspectives. Just as long as I get to keep reading about these characters.
And now, just because I couldn’t fit it into the rest of the review but had to have it somewhere, here’s a quote from a Tori Amos song that Gaiman put after the acknowledgements that I think sums up the entire feel of this story:
but I’m alive, I’m alive
I’m coming to the graveyard
to sing you to sleep now.”
Verdict: five out of five stars