Nobody Owens is an unlikely name for a protagonist, especially the protagonist of a fantasy story. Doesn’t the last name sound a little mundane, not trip-off-the-tongue friendly like Potter, or gives-you-his-quality Fowl. No, it is stolid, simple ‘Owens’. And to add insult to injury, this child’s first name is ‘Nobody’, or as his friends call him, ‘Bod’.
But if you were to judge this book by the protagonist’s name (like Petunia Dursley judging her nephew by his ‘nasty, common’ one), you would miss out on an amazing read.
I hadn’t read a Neil Gaiman in a while (the last was a very-delayed reading of ‘Neverwhere’, nearly two years ago now), and I know ‘The Graveyard Book’ is not exactly fly-off-the-shelf new, but it is one his more recent offerings. I hadn’t bought it earlier, but not because I hadn’t been tempted. Periodically, I would look up the price on Flipkart, always shaking my head when I saw that it hadn’t dropped below 300. One of the first books I located on the Kindle Store was ‘The Graveyard Book’, but here again, the price made me shake my head and remember guiltily that my own device ran on the power of an NRI uncle’s credit card. So it was great pleasure and vindication that I put in some of my hard-won salary and ordered the book, feeling, finally, that I had rightfully earned it.
Gaiman rarely disappoints, so I knew I was in safe hands. My trust turned out to be well-placed. Unlike ‘Neverwhere’, ‘The Graveyard Book’ doesn’t have any ‘eh?’ inducing moments. The story is tightly plotted, the characters well woven, the chills placed in just the right creepy corners. To summarize the book briefly: Nobody Owens is a (live) boy who is being brought up by the (dead) residents of a graveyard. The ghosts look after him, teach him, play with him- provide him with the social structure that any boy needs. He has a rather mysterious guardian, Silas, who strides the borderlands between life and death, disappearing now and again on missions that we can only assume have some dark and deep significance. Bod lacks for nothing, really, except for the fact that his ‘real’ family, the one that bore him, is dead. They were killed at the hands of a man called Jack, who still roves the outside world looking for the boy who got away.
What I loved about this book was the sheer joy of reading it. Gaiman distracted me from the jostles of a crowded metro ride, with all its elbowings and accidental toe stamps. He made me forget the cold wind that cut through the open air platform of the Noida station, almost made me miss my staff bus to my workplace (that last is a true compliment- I am usually very alert and just waiting to get on that bus and off the metro station premises). He actually made my morning commute- something I dread with good reason- enjoyable. And he did this for an entire week, because I made sure to reserve him for those hours.
Seriously, the only thing wrong with this book is how short it is.
There’s something beautiful about ‘The Graveyard Book’. I don’t know if its the simplicity of it, of the lessons that it leaves with you. I don’t know if its the childlike wonder it gives to its readers, the measure of joy it holds even in the boring, adultish hours of a mundane metro jostle. I don’t know if its the opportunity he gives you, of being a kid again, beside Bod as he makes new friends, explores his home, falls into trouble and out of it. I don’t know if it’s the bittersweet end, where he seems to take you by the hand and then lead you, gently, out of his world so that you are standing at its gates, forlorn and wondering when he’s going to invite you in again.