I’ve always meant to read some Neil Gaiman – his style sounds right up my street and I’d enjoyed his Doctor Who episodes. I also watched Coraline with my housemates a year or so ago and really liked it. It was fantastical and scary and everything I’d been told Gaiman’s writing was like – even if the screenplay wasn’t his own work. And so I picked up a copy of Coraline, shortly followed by The Graveyard Book, both the editions with Chris Riddell’s illustrations.
When I started reading Coraline I imagined only the film adaptation, but the further I read and the more of Riddell’s accompanying illustrations I saw, the more independent it became in my mind. It became my own. I was able to re-experience the plot without being restricted by my experience of the film. Coraline herself is a wonderful character and one that appealed to my ten-year-old self; grown-ups are boring, and she wants to explore this house she has found herself in. She thinks herself older than her age – what child doesn’t? – and spends her time exploring the area around her house.
Gaiman imbues a sense of mysticism and otherworldliness in his setting, drawing you in and making the unusual seem perfectly normal. This is also true of The Graveyard Book, with Bod and his home in the graveyard. In Coraline, however, it is the inside which seems more curious. Coraline is fascinated by a passageway that was bricked up but now is clear, leading her to the realm of the Other Mother and Other Father who replicate her real parents, but with buttons for eyes: buttons they want to sew onto Coraline’s eyes. It is this kind of detail that I really liked. I can imagine reading this when I was much younger and being completely terrified, in the best kind of way. Coraline is determined and plucky and things I want a heroine to be. She will not be cowed by this chilling Other Mother who is hunting her down.
I followed Coraline with The Graveyard Book, about a boy called Bod Owens (short for Nobody) who is raised in a graveyard by ghosts. The setting is once again Gaiman’s forte: within the first few chapters I had gone from my spot on the sofa and I was in the graveyard with Bod, exploring its grounds, and talking to all the different ghosts. And the plot paces out excellently, too. We open with ‘the man Jack’, who has come to Bod’s house and killed his parents and sister. Luckily, Bod is a natural explorer and has escaped his crib and makes it safely into the graveyard. And then we meet the ghosts of the graveyard, all discussing what to do about Bod. As a reader you don’t even hesitate to think: ‘but they’re ghosts’. It is simply the obvious.
The story of Bod’s survival churns on as the book progresses, and meanwhile Gaiman uses the opportunity to show us through Bod’s everyday life. His education at the hands of various graveyard residents, meeting another child, and his relationship with Silas. Mr and Mrs Owens are his adopted, ghostly parents; Silas is his guardian. I loved the character of Silas. He is that dark, knowledgeable figure who comes and goes, never quite tells the whole story, and who is endlessly fascinating to a young child like Bod – or indeed, like any of us. It seems a fairly standard fantasy character, but somehow Silas doesn’t seem the stereotypical dark mysterious mentor. Gaiman manages to avoid that pitfall, and I’m still not sure how. He just sort of… does. It’s definitely a feature of his writing, as no other book comes to mind that is so very fantastical and other, yet is so straightforward to the reader.
My only regret with this first foray into Neil Gaiman’s works is that I was not younger when I first read them. I think there is a certain element to both of these books that needs you to be a child when you read them. But that hasn’t stopped me from ordering them both for my bookshelves – I’m pretty sure these are books I’m going to be re-reading in future, particularly The Graveyard Book.
The Graveyard Book: 8.5/10
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