If you would have told me in January that I would read two books this year that were set in graveyards and featured talking ghosts, I would have told you you're crazy. But, here we are. And, you know what? Both such books have been among my favorites.
I didn't intend to read this. Unlike most avid readers, I'm finding out, I had never heard of Neil Gaiman. But, I truly believe sometimes books pick us. I was picking up a gift for a departing co-worker and one of my favorite Spokane stores (Atticus is part coffee shop, part wine store, part book store). My two boys were with me and they're not all that patient in a store that doesn't have video games. So, I was rushing through the shelves and trying to keep them from strangling each other in public when I saw several Gaiman books. I figured if they had more than one, they must be fans. I picked up this one first, read the back and was intrigued. Normally, I'd open the book and read a page, just to see if I like the writer's style, etc. But, I didn't have time, so I grabbed it and took it to the register. There, the kindly bearded man asked if I'd ever read Gaiman before. I said know and - I shit you not - the man got a twinkle in his eye. He told me this was a "good start" and that he and his wife went to Europe and visited the graveyard where this story takes place. I knew I picked a good one.
So, what is it that grabbed my attention? The synopsis on the back. The Graveyard Book describes itself as an "ingenious and captivating reimagining of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book" but, in this story, Mowgli is a boy named Bod and he's raised by ghosts, not by animals. Sounds weird, right? But, it totally works.
That's how the story begins. The prose is simple and haunting and, even though I read these lines at a swimming pool crowded with kids, I was instantly sucked into the darkness. A man named Jack kills a family, but a toddler sneaks away. The man tries to pursue him, but the curious boy toddles into the graveyard and the ghosts there decide to raise him and protect him from the man whose work clearly is not done. We follow along as the boy they name Nobody - Bod for short - grows up in this mystical world.
Because there are teachers in the graveyard, Bod learns to read and write. Eventually, he goes into the human world and even goes to school. But, that public immersion throws his life again into chaos, as the forces that set out to destroy his family realize they have the chance to finish the job with him. It is then where Bod is able to use all the gifts he's learned from the ghosts to protect himself and the future.
Like The Jungle Book, you watch Bod grow up and realize that he will have to leave the graveyard and live his life. And it fills you with such a sense of hope to watch this young man set off into the world.
This is the kind of book you get so absorbed it, you find yourself blocking out the world completely. You have to blink a few times to focus back on the world around you. There aren't many of these out there, so when you find them, you want to tell the world.
I have no doubt I'm not doing this book justice. But, if you can willfully suspend your disbelief, it's a consuming and magical tale. And, as the guy at Atticus told me, it's a good start; there's absolutely more Gaiman in my future.
As soon as I started reading it, I thought back to book #10 that I read this year, Lincoln in the Bardo. Also set in a graveyard, it shares perspective on life from the dead. I'm not the only reader of both to draw parallels between the two, but I have yet to see George Saunders reference this book as an inspiration for his. If you've read Bardo and liked it, you'll like this; the biggest difference here is that it's not told from the ghosts' perspective - it's told by an outside narrator. For that reason, I find it more accessible for a casual read - and, easier to lose yourself in it.