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.