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.
Faced then with the decision of where to begin, I was drawn to 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?