A Christmas gift some years ago of The Dream Hunters introduced me to Neil Gaiman’s work. As an amateur of folk tales, I was entranced and delighted by the beauty and craft of The Dream Hunters, and then started reading earlier works in the Sandman series; my introduction to the graphic novel. Neverwhere and Stardust next captured my attention, followed quickly by most of the rest of Gaiman’s books.
In my second and third readings of Stardust, I grew conscious of one of the characteristics of Gaiman’s works that I find deeply satisfying: What I first saw as “loose threads” were actually precisely woven through the text.
For many authors, it appears to me that internal structural integrity is achieved in a tradeoff against narrative flow; or, more often, that narrative flow is achieved by ruthlessly discarding internal structural integrity. Speaking as an engineer, this is a reasonable tradeoff, since most readers seem not to care about structural integrity. But internal inconsistencies drive me up the wall even when perpetrated by my favorite authors. (I have read — and own and love — dozens of C. S. Lewis’s books, but try piecing together the chronology of Narnia!)
Gaiman is in a delightful but rare class of writers who have the means and inclination to combine compelling narrative with extraordinary structural integrity. I consider Dorthy L. Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Rudyard Kipling well-known exemplars. Each time I re-read most of their published works, I generally notice additional internal consistency, rather than become annoyed by discovering small inconsistencies. This adds delight to re-reading, and helps me slow down while I read, increasing my joy in reading. A virtuous cycle.
Imagine, then, my delight to receive a copy of Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. I paid almost no attention to the title, as usual. I dove in and read the whole book, rudely ignoring everyone around me for hours. As I finished it, I took a deep breath of satisfaction, leaned back in my seat, and said to myself, “Wow. The Jungle Book, set in a graveyard… Oh.” I am a little slow on the uptake, I guess.
Like several of Gaiman’s other works, you probably won’t like it if you are squeamish. There is Death, and Blood, and Violence, and even War. It differs from prime time television news in three ways: it involves magic, it tells of creatures that are literally rather than figuratively inhuman, and it is well worth your time.
Several readers of advanced copies have complained that The Graveyard Book is episodic; almost a collection of short stories. That complaint misses the point in several respects. The first is that Gaiman is a master of the short story; a few words tell a long story. The second is that this story is particularly well-suited to this presentation. It is short enough not to scare away a (say) middle school reader — good! If you want the story to last longer, read slower! True to form, Gaiman’s narrative and construction reward careful reading. Finally, this book, in this form, is an homage to another great work worth re-reading, and worth reading out loud.