Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman book cover
Neverwhere (1996) by Neil Gaiman is a quirky indigenous fantasy, which defamiliarises and plays with the city of London as its centre piece. Richard Mayhew, an unassuming Scot making his way in the City and dominated by his overbearing fiancé, Jessica, is dragged into a whole new world when he helps a young girl named Door, who he finds injured on the pavement one evening. Door is no ordinary girl: on the run from cruel murderers, Croup and Vandemar, she refuses hospital and is left in Richard’s uneasy hands. Leaving his world of London Above behind him, Richard “falls through the cracks” and into the heaving world of London Below, a city beneath a city, packed with fantasy; knights, talking rats, and quests. Unable to return to his own world, Richard is dragged into a mission to avenge Door’s murdered parents, assisted by the caramel-skinned Hunter, a deadly but beautiful warrior, and the Marquis de Carabas, an eccentric and tricksy figure. Battling through the underworld, Richard finds new depths in himself, but whether they will be enough to see him safe and back in his world of London Above is far from certain.

Despite the fact that they exist side-by-side, in parallel if markedly different worlds, the inhabitants of London Above do not notice those from London Below, even when they are mere feet apart. This state of indifference extends beyond the fantasy world and into our own. The dark tunnels beneath the City, which collect the unwanted debris (human or otherwise) from the world above, are indicative of a society which discards that which it deems unnecessary - something as prescient to the real as the fantastic.

But London Below is not just a place for the discarded waste of London Above, it is full of fantastic and mythic inhabitants and customs. The distinction between the two worlds, the relative blindness of the citizens of London Above, relates too to the line between fantasy and imagination, and reality. It’s not until Richard accepts and embraces the fantasy of London Below that he begins to master and understand it.

While Richard’s is a fairly simple adventure story about a man dragged into a quest he never asked for, Gaiman infuses it with dry humour and wonderful creations. However, many of the ideas aren’t fully explicated within the novel but rather exist with a presumed back story to support them; this is by turns frustrating and reassuring. There could have been more development within the novel, and its absence is disappointing, but nevertheless there is a sense of longevity to London Below, a permanence that only an ever-evolving city can have; an admirable quality for a fantasy world. The weakness of plot is never quite compensated for however, the wonderful imaginings of the author only part reparation for this deficit. The prose, too, is occasionally sloppy and the descriptions aren’t as strong as they should be.

Neverwhere, though, boasts some good ideas and memorable characters; a particular highlight is the comic and sinister double-act, Croup and Vandemar, wonderfully quirky criminals with something of the Victorian undertaker about them, never less than bleakly menacing but always engaging. Perhaps the most brilliant examples of imagination though, are the re-imaginings of parts of London, which are literalised by Gaiman, so Blackfriars becomes the Black Friars; Knightsbridge, the Knight’s Bridge; …and so on. London is a significant character in the book and its geography and spirit are captured and played with wonderfully.

The aptly, if not rather simplistically named Door, who draws Richard into London below and has the ability to open even locked things, is not the only symbolically named character. Hunter hunts, and the Marquis de Carabas draws his name from the fairy tale Puss in Boots (Le Maître Chat, ou Le Chat Botté). As a character, Richard barely acclimatises to London Below and even by the novel’s end his development has been minimal (although critical). One can’t help but feel that more could have been done with him.

Neverwhere has its flaws, some of which might spring from the fact that it started life as a television programme, and yet it is fun and funny. The fantastic world of London Below with its distinctly Victorian feel and brilliant innovations is full of pleasures, and there’s much to enjoy here. While the plot is rather basic, the ideas are really strong and the book’s (forgivable) failings are, perhaps, more down to execution than imagination.

I've never been much of a fantasy fan, dipping in now and then. My problem often, as it is here, is that the story should be strong enough to stand on its own, without the fantasy elements. Here it's not, so I was left feeling fairly ambivalent about the book.  

Useful Links
Reviews of Neverwhere on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Neverwhere on Amazon (US)

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Petra said...

I agree, there are some aspects which could be more explored. And I think Gaiman's books are in general quite simple stories, usually about a young guy undergoing the change into an adult. But I still really like his books, there is something very appealing about them. He is not afraid to show his tender and dreamy side through his characters, so they often have big dreams that most people find silly. But he also adds a bit of rawness and his specific kind of humour, so the stories/characters are more complex and it doesn't feel cheesy. I'm not sure whether this makes any sense, but that's how I feel about his books. :)

And BTW, there is a new (2012) book by Terry Pratchett called Dodger, it's set in Dickensian London. In case you want to try another book that's more mainstream, this might be more for you than The Night Circus. ;)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Yes, that makes perfect sense, Petra - I liked the characters, and the world. I think perhaps I'm just not a big fantasy reader. Or pehaps I just haven't found the right fantasy books yet!

I suspect just about anything would be more my cup of tea than The Night Circus but thanks for the recommendation - I've seen Dodger about but I don't really know anything about it.

Petra said...

But you did quite enjoy His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman, didn't you?
I grew up watching The Neverending Story (only the first one) all the time, it's certainly one of the reasons why I like fantasy. :)
I've also always liked mythology, fairy-tales, and folk-tales and I think fantasy is just their modern version. That's probably why the stories are often simple, not so literary and fit more into the storytelling category. But they (the good ones) still do what myths and folk-tales did, capture and tell some essential stuff about being human. Though it's the same thing over and over again, it still fascinates me.

Matthew Selwyn said...

I did, very much. I certainly don't say I don't enjoy any fantasy, just that it's probably not my favourite genre, and consequently I probably only like a small amount. His Dark Materials is wonderful, although it has a lot to say about this world, which I suppose most good fantasy does.

Even growing up, I suspect my tastes were rooted quite heavily in things that related to this world (I can include Power Rangers in that, right?)

Petra said...

And what about magical realism?

And yes of course, Power Rangers relate to this world very much. :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Hmm, I enjoy magical realism too, but I think the more real something is, the more it appeals to me. Probably. So it feels today ;)

Woo - that's all right then!

Petra said...

So nonfiction? ;)

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