Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Graveyard Book

The Hugo Award for best novel was given out this past weekend to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008). I should say up front that it wasn’t my top choice. I was a voting member, even though I didn’t attend Anticipation in Montreal, and my top vote went to another novel. Still, The Graveyard Book is a fine book, and already the winner of the Newbery Medal.

It’s a variation on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book (1894), in which a boy, Mowgli, is raised by the animals of the jungle. In Gaiman’s book, a boy, Nobody Owens, is raised by the undead denizens of a graveyard.

Gaiman hits all the notes you might expect: the threat of death from both earthly and supernatural causes, an amusingly off-kilter education, a touch of childhood romance, an array of charming characters, growth and change, and a nudge out the door toward adulthood. It’s well done throughout.

For me it was spoiled a bit by Gaiman himself. The anthology Wizards edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois (Berkley Books, 2007), led off with “The Witch’s Headstone” by Gaiman, which would later become a chapter in the novel. This was one of the strongest novelettes of the year and it won the Locus Award. It drops the reader immediately into the setting of The Graveyard Book and offers most of the pleasures of that novel in a more compact and intense experience. Next to “The Witch’s Headstone,” the novel’s many digressions and side-trips seem flabby and a bit hollow. The Graveyard Book is a short novel, but after “The Witch’s Headstone” it seems overlong.

The Graveyard Book is the sort of book that lends itself to visual interpretation. The edition in front of me has a generous number of excellent illustrations by Dave McKean. I am not surprised to learn that it’s been picked up for a film. In the fantasy and science fiction genre, Gaiman is on a pace to rival Philip K. Dick for the most film adaptations of his work.

I’ll discuss the novel I did vote for in another post (follow here).

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