Gaiman: never allows himself to be pigeonholed

The Graveyard Book

Neil Gaiman

Bloomsbury, €18.99 (313pps)

'There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife." It's a killer first line, in more ways than one, and perfectly sets up the sparse, effective tale being spun here. In a brilliantly tense opening, a toddler manages to fortuitously evade the murderer intent on killing his entire family, and when he crosses the border of a graveyard, the resident ghosts decide to adopt him, protecting him from the outside world and its dangers.

It's essentially a reimagining of Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book but with a graveyard and ghosts standing in for the jungle and animals.

Since making his name over a decade ago with his peerless comic creation The Sandman, Neil Gaiman has successfully flitted between various mediums, writing graphic novels, novels, plays, radio plays, screenplays and children's books, never staying still long enough to allow himself to be pigeonholed.

This latest effort probably falls into the latter category, but as ever with Gaiman the medium is almost incidental, being simply the vehicle to drive his extraordinary gift for stories.

If it's not a contradiction in terms, The Graveyard Book could be described as being typically original. Every Gaiman tale seems to arrive from a skewed angle, and the askance view can turn the mundane into the horrific or vice versa. The toddler comes to be known as Bod (short for Nobody) but needless to say, given his environment, he doesn't suffer from the standard worries of a young boy.

The dark, bogeymen, ghosts or even death itself hold no fear for him but he shies away from living, breathing humans and the life he knows he must eventually live waiting for him outside the gates of the cemetery.

Even as he comes to realise that fate has him on a collision course with the vicious killer known only as Jack, the prospect of trying to make friends (of the living, breathing variety) still seems like an infinitely scarier proposition. These universal themes on the perils of growing older and having the bravery to live your life are never belaboured or dwelled upon, however, and Gaiman is too smart to allow one catch-all interpretation to exist.

Much like his previous book (supposedly) for kids, the magnificently creepy Coraline, this effort is likely to find a significant crossover audience of young and not-so-young adults.

Gaiman eschews the current trend in children's cinema for winking knowingly at older folk and plays everything with an admirably straight bat that makes the story genuinely touching.

Writing that appears this effortless usually requires a lot of effort and no little skill. The matter-of-fact tone allows the flights of fancy and fantasy a free reign, while the uncluttered prose gives the story space to breathe and to be interpreted as and how the reader likes or how age dictates.

So much so, even, that one of the most frightening characters in the book is actually never properly described, but it elegantly escapes your notice. Scarily good.