The Short Version: As a baby, Nobody Owens comes to the graveyard after his family was murdered. There he grows into a young man, under the watchful eye of ghosts and other assorted creatures. However, as young boys are wont to do, he begins to yearn for the world of men – and all the problems that come with it, including the people who tried to kill him as a baby still waiting for him to resurface.
The Review: Confession: I have never read Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Seen the cartoon, obviously, but never read the book. So while I know that this was Gaiman’s version of that story, I can’t really judge it as such. Instead, I look at this as a remarkable melding of a novel for adults and a novel for children. It is much scarier than most books you’d want to read your (say) six year old – but they’ll love it and you’ll love the reading of it. It has a remarkable cross-generational appeal.
This is, undoubtedly, due to Mr. Gaiman’s impeccable skills as writer. Even the weakest of his books (which, for my money, is Stardust – and that book is no slouch) is so effortlessly assured of itself. He creates a world and establishes the parameters and then allows you to do some of the work of world-creation. It is never specified where “Old Town” is, besides England. Indeed, it’s even (at times) unclear what year it is – not because it is vague but because it isn’t exactly necessary. Sure, the novel is set in the vague present but does that matter? Not in the least. Gaiman’s universe is enough – you don’t need such silly details and should you have them, you’d likely find them unnecessary.
The plot is relatively straightforward. But then you aren’t looking for anything more than that. This is the story of a boy growing up – of humanity and how long one’s humanity can survive even after you’ve died – of the slightly different world we all wish we lived in. The Danse Macabre sequence, mostly unnecessary in terms of plot, is one of the most touching scenes I’ve read in a long time simply because of how… universal it is. How no one acknowledges it and yet, at the same time, everyone acknowledges it. The magic in the mundane – a night where the dead dance with the living and the whole town knows it happens and yet the next day, both the dead and the living are willfully ignorant of it all.
I was disappointed by one thing, I must say – and that was the depth. I wanted to know more. We got to see a vampire (presumably), a werewolf, and a mummy – and obviously ghouls and ghosts – but what was the deal with the Jack-of-all-trades? I wanted to know more about why they existed, what it was they actually did, and why the supernatural creatures of the world (the Honour Guard) would fight against them. It was all so very rich, such mythology to be tapped, and it was only seen glancingly. There were two brief mentions of Silas leading a fight through some caves in Krakow – but I feel as though there could’ve been oh-so-much more! Not having it makes sense, it certainly helps keep the book grounded on the children’s lit side of the spectrum… but as an adult, I wanted to sink into this world so much further. I wanted to know more about it and was sadly denied.
And yet… as a young man who was all too recently a boy, there was something so beautiful about the way Gaiman captures Bod’s growing up. That idea of being unable to recapture one’s childhood (no matter how imaginative one may be) has never been rendered quite so well as it is here, when Bod begins to lose the ability to see and do the things he has always understood. He can’t call through graves, he can’t see in the dark, he can’t even see the ghosts he’s grown up with. What a tragic metaphor for all of us growing up and losing our imaginations. Gaiman is telling us that it didn’t happen by chance but it happened on purpose – we have to lose those things as we grow up. We can hang onto them – much as Bod hangs onto the knowledge that he knew these ghosts and Silas and that ‘there are more things in Heaven and Earth,’ etc – but that there’s nothing like the innocence of childhood. The end of the book made me tear up and that was a wonderful and unexpected thing.
Rating: 5 out of 5. An excellent – and far less scary – addition to the “for children AND adults” canon that Gaiman is slowly building. Coraline was definitely a scary tale for children (that also scared adults) and Stardust a fairy-story – while this novel is something more than both of those things combined. It has fantastic elements and magic, frights, creatures, etc – but it is also, first and foremost, a story about growing up. About seeing the darkness in the world and countering it with the light, even if that light comes from darkness. That was a strange sentence but if you read the book, I promise you’ll understand. And if you’re a kid, you probably just understood it inherently. So go forth and wonder, friends.