In a 2008 interview with Wired.com, Neil Gaiman recounts how he came upon writing his classic ‘The Graveyard Book‘. Gaiman’s son who was two years old at te time had a tricycle he wanted to ride. They lived in a tall house with no garden. Gaiman then took his son to the graveyard near the lake across his house. As he watched his son, the idea of a book started taking shape in his mind, where all his ideas came from. What if, he thought I had a Mowgli-like character from Jungle Book living in a graveyard, where he would find himself raised by dead people.
The book has been read at two levels Gaiman says. Children see Bod, our hero of The Graveyard Book as someone exciting and wonderful. Adults, on the other hand, see it as a book about growing up, the unconscious tragedy of moving away from childhood to being older. Gaiman himself had no idea he was writing a book about growing up; he was only conscious that Bod would grow to be older.
In The Graveyard Book, Gaiman remembered the myths from the ancient Egyptians and Norse tales but chose to write his own new myths. Ghouls who seldom find mention in myths find prominent mention here. Gaiman says, ” I would much rather The Graveyard Book would serve as a sort of inoculation. I would love to make kids less scared of the world they are in. I would love to make them less scared of things like graveyards and the dead. Umm..because one of the things in the book is that the dead can’t hurt you.They’re dead. Living things can hurt you, living people can hurt you, but the dead can’t”.
A more chilling opening to a book you will rarely find.
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The knife had a handle of a polished bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.”
It is this knife that puts to end the life of the father, the mother and sister of an infant. The infant as if protected by forces unknown escapes and crawls his way to the graveyard, not out of fear but simply as an escape from his crib.Here he is spotted and eventually adopted by the Owens, thanks to a heart-rending plea from his dead mother. The Owens are unusual in that they have been dead for a few centuries. Other inhabitants of the graveyard are not entirely supportive of this adoption, but the baby christened Nobody Owens or simply Bod stays on.
As Bod grows he is tutored by Silas who gets him started on ‘A is for Apple, B is for Ball and The Cat in The Hat. Pretty soon Bod is learning the Latin of the tombstones and the language of the dead. Soon Bod makes trips not always voluntary to the world of the dead and the living. He visits the ghouls inadvertently only to escape and makes a trip to the local pawn store to sell a few baubles so that he may buy a headstone for the unmarked grave of his witch acquaintance Liza Hempstock. Both these visits teach Bod to stay put in the graveyard. He befriends the human child Scarlett for a short while, but soon, she too is gone.
Bod takes part in the dance of the danse macabre, where the living and the dead meet to dance, the dance that unites king with pauper, young with old in its final embrace.
Many have said this signifies the end of Bod’s childhood. Gaiman who wrote The Graveyard book with many pauses, some five to six years apart says the book is essentially about life. He adds that a book set in the graveyard, with a child growing in it is a book where one can talk about life. The book could not have been written when he was twenty- five says Gaiman, but he did write it when he had raised his first two children. The ‘glorious tragedy of parenthood‘ is what The Graveyard Book is about. The tragedy being that parents realise that they have done a good job and their children now want to move away and discover the world. ” If you do your job right, they go away”. The Graveyard book is about growing up, about learning and about moving away.
Bod goes on to confront his family’s killer and outwits him eventually.
The book closes spectacularly as it began.
“There was a passport in his bag, money in his pocket. There was a smile dancing on his lips, although it was a wary smile, for the world is a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries, new friends to make, old friends to rediscover, mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion.
But between now and then, there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.”
The book has many well-etched historical portrayals of the dead characters in the book. Children who died of consumption, girls who were drowned for being witches and young women who were grandmothers by twenty to name a few.
The story is supported beautifully by Chris Riddell’s languorous illustrations, that are dreamy and evoke a mixture of awe and fear.
The Graveyard Book is a must have on the bookshelf that must be passed generation to generation to remind us all that we all have our own individual destinies and we can find love in the strangest of places.