Neverwhere: the lure of Neil Gaiman’s mesmerising ‘London Below’

For quite a while I’ve been saying I want to read more novels by Neil Gaiman. I read Stardust at some point last year and was swept away by it, but then I became distracted, as you do, by various other also amazing authors and books. Then, a couple of months ago maybe, I noticed a lot of Gaiman’s books were cheap where I usually buy my books, and I immediately ordered the rest of his novels, as well as his short story collections.

NeverwhereFaced then with the decision of where to begin, I was drawn toΒ Neverwhere, his quirky fantasy set in “London Below”, a city beneath a city. Perhaps it was my recent visit to London (which is a big thing when your closest city normally is Sydney), perhaps it was simply the idea of a whole secret dwelling place underground that most people could never even dream of, but something grabbed me about the idea.

The whole concept is that London Below is where the people who have “fallen between the cracks” in society go. These people, when they do walk London Above, are not even seen by most Londoners (who are too busy in their lives to notice such insignificance). But London Below has more than this, teeming with huge dangerous monsters, angels, knights, jesters, talking rats, murderers, assassins and personalities galore. And when Richard Mayhew, a young businessman plodding away through his seemingly average life, stops to help out someone in need, he finds himself inexorably pulled into this world below his own, where he is drawn into an increasingly intricate story involving murder, revenge, mystery and deceit.

There is so much to love about the way Gaiman has written this book. The descriptions of the various parts of London Below is brilliant, and has been informed by research – indeed Gaiman wandered down into the sewers to gain some understanding of how they looked, smelt, and were connected to one another (he was so impressed by them that he changed the perceptions one of his characters had of them). Many of the places are based on old unused Underground stations from the tube system, and many more are based on stations that are used, as he twists the meaning of the place names – in many cases interpreting them literally. There are places like the Floating Market, a market which moves around from place to place, only opening at night and only for the people of London Below, and the story returns to the bizarre stalls of this place more than once throughout the novel.

Then there are the brilliant characters. You do spend the majority of the story feeling sorry for Richard, but without him becoming too whiny (which is always a risk with such protagonists). Door is clever and cunning, and often is the most impressive at the most pivotal moments of the story, indicating an intelligence and forethought that is quite charming. Then there are characters like Hunter, and the Marquis de Carabas, both of whom are well developed yet are surrounded with a certain amount of mystery until the end of the story. And of course there are the bad guys, in particular the gruesome Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, both of whom, with their nightmarish tendencies, put your average bad guys to shame.

A book that is full of imagination and yet feels somewhat familiar, I could recommend this to anybody and everybody – Gaiman appeals to my adult imagination in the same way Roald Dahl appealed to my childhood imagination (and that is a pretty big call coming from me). Gaiman is a genius and a master storyteller, and I simply cannot wait to go and dive into one of his other novels.

Have you read Neverwhere, or any other novel by Neil Gaiman? What are your thoughts?

26 thoughts on “Neverwhere: the lure of Neil Gaiman’s mesmerising ‘London Below’

  1. Sounds like a great read. I always wondered where all the mystical creatures from Tolkein were meant to have gone with industrialisation – it sounds they’ve found a home under London.

  2. I haven’t read any Gaiman yet, but he’s on my list, and this book sounds really fascinating. “Under London” is such an interesting topic on its own, and I imagine it would be really intriguing to read about a kind of fantasy world based on real aspects of London underground. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this one!

    • It is a really interesting topic, isn’t it? I was always interested in how Winston Churchill hid underground in London during the war, so the idea of stretching this out to an entire community of people living in a much bigger underground is fascinating. I’d love to go back to London again and find out more about the underground system, see just how much was fictionalised and how much was real. It is such a massive network – I probably got on and off at 30 or 40 different stations during my time there, and that only covered half of the stations in the first two zones (out of nine zones in total for London)…it boggles the mind to think about it.
      I’d be curious to see your thoughts on Gaiman’s writing. I’ll keep an eye out for your review! πŸ˜‰

  3. I just loved this book. You’re totally right, Gaiman has a way of capturing your imagination as an adult – something I really miss when I remember my favourite books as a child. I should really try some of his other work! Nice review πŸ™‚

    • Ah glad to hear other people have enjoyed it so much too! I find it takes a lot more for books to sweep me away like this one did, but it is always a pleasant surprise (and perhaps more appreciated now than when I was a kid) when it does happen!
      Thank you! πŸ™‚

  4. He’s on “heard so much about this author I need to read something” list. The under city idea is intriguing. I read a YA book about an underworld with the same ideas. I wonder which came first…

    • Hahaha that’s a good list – I have a few authors on a similar list too! πŸ™‚
      Well Neverwhere appears to have been published in 1996, though I know he wrote a television series earlier which he based the novel on. Or something along those lines. Anyway it’s roughly mid 90s! πŸ˜›

  5. I loved Neverwhere. It was fantastic! I needed an inspirational book that helped me plot London in some way and Gaiman definitely describes London in a surreal way for those of us who have never been there in real life. I loved the mythology that he brings in, the subtleties and little details that truly pull you into his fantasy world. I would recommend to anyone πŸ™‚ Have you read American Gods yet? That one just sounds so interesting!

    • Ah yes, it definitely brings London to life even if it’s a slightly fictionalised London. As I said I loved it especially as I just visited London back in October (it’s one of those cities you just have to visit at some point in your life…in the not too distant future I’ll probably be living on that side of the world so I’ll be able to visit it again with a lot more ease). I’m glad to know you loved Neverwhere as well! πŸ™‚
      I haven’t read American Gods yet, though a workmate just mentioned it today – he just finished reading it and says it’s brilliant. It’s sitting on my shelf so I will probably get to it soon (I intend on reading all of Gaiman’s stuff over the course of this year).

  6. I have read most of Neil Gaiman’s novels, but have to admit that Neverwhere and Stardust are two of my favourites! They have a charm which many other fantasy novels–of whatever sub-genre–lack, and, as you say, Gaiman’s characters in Neverwhere are fantastic! I’d say definitely read American Gods, but be prepared for quite a different read! Looking forward to hearing what you’ll think about it πŸ™‚

    • Ahhh so I perhaps have read two of his best from the start? πŸ˜› But I agree, there’s a charm to Gaiman’s writing that sets it far above most other writers within the genre, and it seems almost effortless as well.
      I keep hearing good things about American Gods. That one might be next on my list of Gaiman books to read (though I’m going to read stuff by other authors for a little while to break it up a bit). πŸ™‚

  7. This sounds like a fascinating story! I recently saw a documentary about the ancient cities beneath the modern ones, including London, so I would be very interested in reading about the lives living ‘below’. Thanks for the review! πŸ™‚

    • Oooh that documentary sounds fascinating! I have always found that interesting, the idea of ancient cities being beneath modern ones. I love that when they discovered the ruins of Troy, the Troy that was ruined in the Trojan War story we all know (from around 3200 years ago if I remember correctly), they also found the ruins of a number of cities on that same spot that existed beforehand. It’s almost like it was a cursed spot for cities, but we only know a little about the last one, and then only through a poet who wrote about it some 500 years after the events.
      Anyway, I digress…yes, this is an awesome story! Definitely worth the read! πŸ™‚

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