Neil Gaiman is one of the most reliably entertaining writers today. He creates worlds where the weird and magical coexist with the familiar and mundane world around us. In Neverwhere, originally created as a TV show, Gaiman gives us London, Above and Below. The former is familiar, particularly in the everyday drudgery of the cubicle work world. The later is the world where those who are unseen in the world disappear to. And what a fascinating world London Below is.
Richard Mayhew is the hapless hero of this Gaiman tale. Richard, in an act of kindness to help a young injured girl named Door, unknowingly cuts himself off from London Above. Richard saves Door, and he soon learns she has powerful magic: to open locks and doors and even create doors anywhere in anything. Her family of openers has been killed and she wants revenge. Richard, for his act of kindness, finds that he no longer exists in London Above — people don’t see him, a literal rendering of the reality of many in society. His landlord leases out his flat, his colleagues don’t know him. Richard sees no alternative and he joins Door in her attempt to find out what happened to her family. They are joined by the Marquis de Carabas, a thief who has restyled himself a lord and Hunter, who has slain mythical beasts like the Albino Alligator of New York. Along the way, they meet a host of other characters who try to help or hinder their success. There is the Earl’s Court that travels the ‘dark unopening’ car of an British Underground train that passes through the Earl’s Court station (leaving Richard wondering if there’s a Raven’s Court….) and the assassins Vandermar and Croop — a bit like Pinky and the Brain if that duo were some sort of unspecified monsters and a hilarious take on the ‘intellectual criminal and dunderheaded thug’ type.
Lovable, clueless, and yet somehow, strangely accepting of the strange world beneath the streets of London, Richard finds himself confronting royal courts, floating markets, rat-speakers, angels, knights in armor and monsters, Richard is a wonderful protagonist in part because he doesn’t fit the traditional hero role. Door rescues him as much as he rescues her.
The majority of the tale is told from Richard’s POV in third person and it is here that Gaiman shines. We see a man struggle with not only who he is and what, if any, value he adds to the world — both London Above and Below. He succumbs to the bizarre situation in a way that allows his full participation, despite the logical part of his brain telling him, none of this is possible: he doesn’t freeze, he doesn’t reject or deny; he doesn’t break-down and declare himself insane. Richard is curious and fascinated by London Below, yet his goal is to return home to London Above.
One of the qualities I love about Gaiman’s writing is he doesn’t waste time explaining the mechanics of this world — we simply figure them out along with the protagonist or not and, again, like Richard, simply suspend our disbelief and go along for the ride. He shows that world-building isn’t about paragraphs and pages of backstory and info-dumping so the reader ‘gets it’ but rather, he trusts his readers will accept and join his adventure. Gaiman brilliantly weaves myth and urban legend and humorous literalism into a magical world filled with bizarre and entertaining folk.
Richard and Door’s adventure is a traditional hero quest and the characters mythological in many senses. The book had me laughing aloud at the puns and the familiar yet wholly original takes on types. Listening to the audiobook was made all the better by Neil Gaiman reading it. I’d love to see more of the world of Neverwhere.*
* I wrote the original review before Gaiman announced he would write a new story set in London Below and I am thrilled to know that we will get to spend more time in Neverworld.