25 March, 2009

Book 4 - The Graveyard Book

I've got a bit of a love-hate relationship going on with Neil Gaiman. I mean, not on a personal level. I don't know the guy, although I've heard he's followed around by screaming hordes of young, lithe women who want to have his slightly geeky literary babies. (This might be a slight exaggeration.)

No, my problem with Gaiman is that he seems to have women issues - sometimes. My two favourite books of his are both children's books, Coraline and MirrorMask, and both have the kind of capable female protaganists that I hope to offer to my future godchildren as the people they should grow up to be like. But both stories also feature mother-figure antagonists - dark parodies of the girls' real mothers - intent on keeping the girls as their own daughter-possessions. Does Mr Gaiman have mother issues? I've had some professional training in this area (at least, I once sat in on my friend's Psych 101 class) and I'm going to go ahead and say yes.

Then there's the women in his books for adults. The three most memorable women in American Gods are a goddess who works as a prostitute, Shadow's wife, who dies will giving his best friend a BJ, and Bast, who spends most of her time as a cat, only turning into a woman at night... in order to sleep with Shadow. And let's not even talk about Gaiman's short story reimagining of Narnia (I shall never think of Aslan the same way again).

For those of you playing at home, that's a tick for "sex issues" and a tick for "mother issues". Freud would be having a field day.

Despite all that, I do enjoy Gaiman's work, and considering that The Graveyard Book was about a child-orphan-protagonist I was interested to see how he'd break from his usual Oedipal mould. I'm glad that I did.

Title: The Graveyard Book (2008)

Author: Neil Gaiman

Why this book?
I got if for Christmas!

What's it about, anyway?
A baby boy's entire family is slaughtered one night but the baby boy escapes by crawling to a nearby graveyard. The people of the graveyard - its ghosts, and other members of the, uh, non-living community - adopt the baby, naming him Nobody, or Bod, for short.

Bod has a surprisingly idyllic childhood, watched over by his adoptive ghost parents and his guardians, Silas and Miss Lupescu. He makes friends with the ghost-children, and with Scarlett Perkins, one of the first live people he has contact with. As he grows, however, he struggles with the fact that as someone who is not yet dead he can not really be part of the graveyard's world; but as a human boy growing up among ghosts he can never be quite normal to those who are still alive.

Bod's adoptive family try to shield him from the harsh realities of the world, but his own curiosity drives him to try to discover who killed his parents, and why. The words "thrilling conclusion" could definitely be used here, and entirely without irony.

The good and the bad:
For the most part, this book was what I've come to expect (and love!) from Gaiman - the story is both quirky and chilling, at times light-hearted and at times pretty dark. Bod's encounter with the Sleer, an ancient underground monster, had me on the edge of my seat, as did his imprisonment by a living store-owner. All the characters were well-drawn, from Bod himself to the schoolyard bully, to Scarlett and her mother, to the Man Jack, Bod's family's murderer. Liza Hempstock, the ghost of a witch who was not buried in consecrated ground, is a particular treat.

I raced through most of the book in an ohgodwhathappensnext manner, but its conclusion stuck out rather uncomfortably for me. Scarlett, horrified at the way Bod has dealt with his family's killer, has her memories taken from her so that she will not only not remember the events that have transpired, but will forget Bod himself. This is more about Bod than it is about Scarlett - he behaves in a way that the people of the graveyard would completely condone, but which the living find positively inhuman. But the idea of taking away someone's memories is, to me, too much like assault - they're pretty much stealing part of Scarlett's self by doing so.

Then again, it could just be that I still haven't recovered from that episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor does exactly the same thing. Just thinking about it still makes me mad. >:(

So should I read it or what?
While Coraline remains my favourite Gaiman book (and probably one of my all time favourite books, period) The Graveyard Book is a fantastic read, and I didn't notice Gaiman's Oedipal complex at all. This one is definitely with a read - but don't just take my word for it! The ALA awarded it the 2009 Newbury Award, past winners of which include Louis Sachar's Holes and the excellent Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine.


Sadako said...

This looks really good. I'm always wondering if I should read Neil Gaiman and I think this is tipping me towards the "should read" part.

I also love pretending that taking psych courses gives me license to psychoanalyze people and characters alike! :)

HelenB said...

I'm kind of biased, since, as I said, Coraline is really one of my favourite books ever! But I'd definitely advise you to read one or two of his novels before tackling his short stories - I found the latter pretty off-putting.