These days, every young-adult novel has to be part of a series. A story can't just exist to be enjoyed; it has to be stretched, re-stretched, and dragged endlessly onward, stringing readers along from one cliffhanger to the next, just to get the full market value on all merchandising possibilities. So right from the start, Neil Gaiman's new novel, The Graveyard Book, has an edge. It isn't "part one" of anything; while the funereal world Gaiman introduces is as rich as anything he's worked on before, Graveyard comes to a satisfactory conclusion by its final page. For once, the hero gets the job done without needing a movie deal or a set of calendars. It's the least of the book's considerable strengths.
When Nobody Owens is just a baby, a man named Jack murders his entire family. Nobody manages to escape to the graveyard at the top of the hill, where he catches the attention of the local ghosts; after much deliberation, they decide to raise and protect Nobody until he's old enough to go out on his own. He has new parents, the kindly Mr. and Mrs. Owens (who died so long ago, she doesn't believe in bananas), as well as a guardian named Silas, who's neither dead nor living. The graveyard has many secrets and tricks that the living never hear of, and as he grows from infancy to adolescence, Nobody finds his way into most of them. Inside the cemetery, he's safe, but outside, Jack hasn't given up the hunt.
The Graveyard Book owes an acknowledged debt to Rudyard Kipling, and part of the pleasure is seeing how Gaiman draws in familiar elements and makes them his own. Even better is the story's light touch; Gaiman's gift for invention and wit are as present as ever, but there's an ease to this novel that's sometimes lacking in his prose. For once, he seems as interested in enjoying his tale as he is in telling it, and that pleasure gives the book a timeless, effortless feel. Dave McKean's illustrations are charming as well, full of swooping grays and blacks. The Graveyard Book lacks the scope of Gaiman's best-known efforts, but some stories don't need to be epic; they simply need to be.