Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Graveyard Book (by Neil Gaiman)

Thanks to Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams, who ran a contest on her excellent writing blog which I won! Which allowed me to buy this book and also Steven Saylor's Last Seen in Massilia, which I'll read and review after my summer holiday. (I'm also thoroughly enjoying her mystery Delicious and Suspicious and plan to attempt dry rub from the recipies at the back at some point, which will probably go horribly wrong!).

Spoilers follow.

I wasn't expecting to post on The Graveyard Book, which I was desperate to read, but was delighted to discover a Roman lurking around the graveyard Bod lives in, making the book prime blogging material! Caius Pompeius doesn't play a large role in the book, but he does provide some colour at the beginning, emphasising the variety of people in the graveyard - it's not all Grey Ladies and monks (though they are there too).

The main purpose of Caius Pompeius' presence is to emphasise how old the graveyard is. Humans, once we have set aside a certain space as sacred, or as intended for the burial of the dead, or in the case of Christian burial both, tend to like to keep it that way. New religions take over old temples and convert them for their own purposes. In the case of burial, Roman pagans were horrified by the Christian idea that dead bodies should be buried within the town, as they preferred to keep the di manes, the shades of the dead, at a distance (whereas Christians kept the dead close in the hope of bodily resurrection). However, the idea that Caius Pompeius might ask to be buried beside an older burial mound makes perfect sense, as presumably the town boundaries were different in the Roman period and he specifcially says that he wanted to be buried near the even older burial mound already present. Romans used both burial and cremation, with fashions changing at different periods (mostly burial in the first century BC, for example, and mostly cremation in the first century AD) until the wide adoption of Christianity put an end to cremation (because one can't be resurrected in body and soul on the last day if one's body has been burned, according to Christian theology of the period).

Caius Pompeius is the oldest member of the graveyard's community, because the mound he was buried near contains something else entirely (I'm not sure if the Sleer is a fantastic invention of Gaiman's, or related to a mythology I'm not familiar with. Either way, there's not much indication of a ghostly person in that grave, though there must have been someone once). Unlike his companions from the Early Modern period, he speaks modern English, presumably because whereas they continue to speak in the way they did when alive, he has had to learn a new language post-mortem and has kept up with changing idioms (makes sense to me!). We don't get to know much about him as a character, but he's friendly and as an ex-soldier, he has a tendency to take charge. And his pro-consul was called Marcus because, as Chelmsford 123 pointed out, all Romans are called Marcus. (Or Gaius/Caius).

There are a couple of other Classical references in the book (and there's a lot of Latin on the gravestones, of course). My favourite, which actually made me laugh out loud, was Nehemiah Trot the poet's advice to Bod on how to talk to girls. He starts off all right, suggesting that Bod call the girl his 'Terpsichore' (Muse of choral song and dance), which is appropriate enough, but his next suggestion is 'Echo', who is not exactly a role model for successful romance, and his third suggestion is... Clytemnestra. Poor Scarlett nearly does end up being Bod's Clytemnestra, but not on purpose. Trot's suggestions for how Bod should refer to himself include Leander, who was killed trying to reach his lover, Hero, who was Leander's girlfriend (as in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing, it's a girl's name) and who killed herself, and Alexander, which is another name for Paris, the man whose romantic relationship/seduction/rape of another man's wife (depending on version) started the Trojan War. Bod thinks to himself 'if you couldn't trust a poet to give sensible advice, who could you trust?' which just goes to show that the poor boy is in desperate need of a more up-to-date education.

Then, of course, there's Miss Lupescu. I will have to stop making excuses about how I didn't work out Remus Lupin's secret from Harry Potter because I hadn't done Latin yet at the time, because this one passed me by as well. I just don't concentrate when I read for pleasure. I rather liked the idea of werewolves as 'Hounds of God' though.

I loved the book - I've been desperate to read it for ages and I wasn't disappointed. It's beautifully illustrated with wonderful slightly creepy, slightly old-fashioned, but not too creepy illustrations by Chris Riddell. I wasn't too sure whether or not I liked the decision to put the illustrations, together with a caption, at the beginning of each chapter - on the upside, this gives the reader a taste of what is to come (I especially liked the drawing of Liza Hempstock, right) but on the downside, it takes away some of the surprise and excitement of seeing what comes next. The story was more bittersweet than I was expecting, though given the subject matter that was pretty appropriate. I wasn't so keen on the ghouls and the ghoul gate sequence, as it seemed a bit too fantastical compared to the rest of the book, but it worked in context, and was necessary for the plot. I loved the sequences featuring Liza the witch and the Danse Macabre, and I loved Silas. This was the sort of book that made me start imagining what happened to the characters afterwards, which is the sort of thing I love to do, and which I think is especially good in a children's book, as it might spark their imaginations!


  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and your review is excellent, I enjoyed it equally.

  2. This was a fast-paced and very enjoyable read, and is highly recommended for young and old.

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