Thursday, 7 April 2011

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman

Dear Diary.
On Friday I had a job, a fiancee, and a life that made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense.) Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement, and I tried to be a Good Samaritan. Now I've got no fiancee, no home, no job, and I'm walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruitfly.

After stopping to help a young girl in trouble, Richard Mayhew finds to his horror that he seems to have dropped out of the world. Not only do his friends and colleagues not recognise him, but no one else seems to even see him. Cashpoints don't recognise his bank card, automatic doors can't sense him and his flat has been let out to someone else! Desperate to get his life back, Richard finds himself in another London located beneath the streets of the city we know by that name, in the sewers and disused tube stations, where all those London landmarks with strange names have a literal counterpart. An Earl has his Court on an underground train, the Night's Bridge is a deadly place, the Black Friars guard a key to release an Angel - named Islington - from his prison. London Below is where the people go who "fall through the cracks" of society, a place where rats are venerated but a human life is fragile. Richard no longer exists in London Above, but can he hope to survive long in London Below?


In Gaiman's introduction to Neverwhere, he writes that his intention was, "to write a book that would do for adults what the books I had loved when younger, books like Alice in Wonderland, or the Narnia books, or the Wizard of Oz did for me as a kid." If that is so, he certainly succeeded. After just one reading, Neverwhere felt like a classic to me, like something I knew inside out because it wasn't just a book that had been written, but something organic, something that had grown naturally and that somehow, I had always known this story. It was more like a mythology than a novel. London is an old city, with so much forgotten history and so many romantic, imaginative landmarks and names that Gaiman's explanation makes sense of them all. Of course the Earl has a Court. Of course the Angel Islington is a real figure. Of course the Black Friars are a real order of monks with a mysterious purpose. In an unsettling way, Gaiman's Neverwhere comes to feel more real than the real city of London.

Neverwhere is a wonderful fantasy quest with a humour reminiscent of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, only it takes place beneath London rather than in space. Perhaps there is some inspiration from classic Doctor Who, but Neverwhere is what alerted me to the wonderful imagination of Neil Gaiman. True, sometimes I got so engrossed in the world of London Below that I would wonder, vaguely, what the actual plot was - what were the characters' goals. For the most part, though, I didn't wonder for long but just sat back and enjoyed the ride.

London Below has some wonderful characters: the Lady Door with a special talent for opening doors that no one else can - that no one else even knows are there. The Marquis de Carabas - named from a fairy tale - the arrogant, flamboyant rogue. And in Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar we have the creepiest villainous duo I have yet encountered, chillingly, inhumanly evil; "I suppose you could call them men, yes. Two legs, two arms, a head each." Yet alongside the shivers evoked by this terrifying duo is a lot of dark humour in their very matter-of-factness and the contrast between them. Mr Croup is smart-talking, sly and cruel. Vandemar is mentally slow and brutally honest. This combination of clever baddie and thuggish, stupid baddie is hardly an original one, but Croup and Vandemar stand out from the rest. But despite all the dangers encountered below the streets of London, the scariest moment was the "Ordeal" that Richard is tested with, a scene of psychological horror that leaves Richard - and maybe the reader too - questioning his own sanity. His hallucinations - if that's what he experiences - are terribly convincing.

I first had Neverwhere recommended to me in my first week at university, September 2004, but it took me until last spring to get around to reading it. When I did, I wondered how I could have waited so long, and why my friends had not insisted more strongly that I stop dawdling, put down everything else and read this book. Neverwhere is without doubt the best book I read in 2010, a must-read for Londoners and London-lovers with a love for a good imagination.

3 comments:

  1. What an amazing review!
    I have Neverwhere lurking around my shelves and have never gotten around to read it. I really like how he tries to create the same reaction as kids have to Narnia etc.
    I am going to drop everything and read it :)

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  2. I actually started reading this sat on the steps of the British Museum, and was hooked instantly - it's a marvellous book!

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  3. Isn't it? Every time I read it, I raving about it so much I end up lending it out to someone, or multiple someones. I can see it is a book I'm going to have to buy several copies of in my lifetime.

    It is best read in the middle of London, I think. I think it enjoys riding the tube - though I may be letting my imagination run away with me there.

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