You pick up this book. It’s about a baby whose entire family is murdered, though he survives by crawling to the safety of a graveyard where he is raised by its dead inhabitants. His childhood is spent roaming tombs and mausoleums, learning about ghoul gates and ancient treasures and the art of fading from sight. Above all he must avoid the killer who wants to finish what he’s started. A tantalizing plot for a piece of children’s lit. And it’s written by Neil Gaiman. And it won awards and whatnot.
You expect it to be eerie. Heartwarming. Darkly humorous. Burton-esque, maybe. You expect it to be pretty damn good.
And it’s not bad, it’s just…not THAT good.
I quite like the macabre tones and nasty family figures that are twisted into a lot of children’s fiction – take Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket or J. K. Rowling, for instance. Even J. M. Barrie’s original Peter Pan (sans Disney). So maybe I set my expectations too high for a similar sort of dark, enjoyable read.
In trying to understand why I felt the book wasn’t as satisfying as I anticipated, I’ve been comparing it a lot to authors such as those I mentioned above. I think the main issue I had was that, despite its promising plot, the world of the graveyard – its characters, mood, settings and the “laws” of its universe, so to speak – is not as richly imagined as a lot of other “worlds” I liked to spend time in as a book-loving child.
A lot of this seems to stem from the way it is written, as a book of short stories that take place throughout the life of young Nobody (Bod) Owens, rather than as a novel. This diminishes the continuity necessary to really make Bod’s world come alive (*ahem, unintentional pun*). Each chapter functions on its own, requiring many plot points to be introduced and developed hastily within the chapter’s frame rather than gradually and fully elaborated.
It still has a redeeming warmth and a surprisingly comforting take on death. Like many children’s books, Love, Destiny and Adventure remain central themes. Timeless as they are, perhaps Gaiman could have done more to push their boundaries into even more creative spheres.
Aesthetically (because I like aesthetics), it has a beautifully textured cover, and is nice to hold – the pages prop open just so. Praises too for Dave McKean’s illustrations; they carry just the right touch of dark whimsy to suit the story.
3.5 out of 5, I’ll give it. And I’ll still give Gaiman another try.