Neverwhere is an odd book. That might seem like a fairly redundant thing to say about something written by Neil Gaiman, but what makes Neverwhere so odd is not just its content, but also its inception. It started life as a television series, created by Neil Gaiman and his good friend Lenny Henry. Gaiman, upset at the amount of story that ended up on the cutting room floor, decided to adapted his own TV series into a novel and include all of the missing content. After the book was published in England, it then had to be re-written for an American audience, adding extra detail and description to prevent all the references to London from going right over their heads.
Eventually, Neil Gaiman combined both the US and the UK editions of the book, creating an all together more comprehensive and definitive version of the novel. It’s a suitably odd beginning for a brilliantly odd book, and the end result is something magical.
Unlike American Gods, it’s easier to identify the genre of Neverwhere. Whereas American Gods was a sprawling epic that contained and explored a great number of genres, effortlessly flipping from science-fiction to fantasy to horror, Neverwhere is a much trimmer and much more focused book. It it firmly centred within the realms of fantasy, but that doesn’t mean that it is an any less poignant or astounding book, for it is just as impressive, but in different ways.
Neverwhere tells the story of Richard Mayhew, a young Scottish businessman who moves down to London to work (a scary enough prospect in its own right), and soon finds himself trapped in the terrifying world of London Below. Richard is in instantly likeable character, under-appreciated at work, put-upon by his pushy girlfriends, he is the everyman we can all relate to, and there’s something undeniably charming about his permanently flustered demeanour. Also, the fact that he is plunged into this hellish otherworld for doing the right thing makes his plight very sympathetic.
The other characters that populate London Below are just as compelling as Richard, but in completely different ways. Be it the determined but fragile Door, the sarcastic and untrustworthy Marquis de Carabas, or the stoic and mysterious Hunter, Gaiman had created a rich tapestry of characters, each as bizarre but believable as the world of London Below.
All the characters in the book will stay with you long after you have finished reading, and in the case of the villainous Croup and Vandemar, they will probably haunt your nightmares as well.
I said earlier that London Below is both hellish and terrifying, but that is not the case. That is how Richard first sees it, so, by proxy, that his how the reader sees it as well. But over the course of the book, Richard starts to see the charm of London Below, and Gaiman’s descriptions start to shift from nightmarish to fantastical. By the end of the book London Below seems like a glimmering utopia when compared to the mundaneness of the real world, and the subtle way that the change in descriptions shift our perceptions is nothing short of masterful. Gaiman has created a dirty, grimy, dangerous world that is nevertheless thoroughly seductive and appealing.
London Below is a fantastical place, where the Angel Islington is an actual being, where the Black Friars are a real religious order, where there is an Earl in Earl’s Court and shepherds in Shepherd’s Bush. In the hands of a lesser author, all these wordplays might have come across as little more than bad puns, but Gaiman makes them work in a original, funny, and often perfectly logical way. But there is much more to London Below than clever twists on London landmarks. Gaiman’s world is a place where rats are worshipped as royalty, where not minding the gap on the Underground has truly horrific consequences, where just about anything and everything is possible. The book is a truly remarkable love letter to London and Gaiman’s appreciation and adoration for the city really shines through.
Like American Gods, Neverwhere deals with a great many number of themes. Within its pages are betrayal, death, acceptance, sanity, deception, and loss of identity. These are all themes that run through the bulk of Gaiman’s writing, but he is always able to present them in such a fresh and profound way, that they never feel derivative of his other work. Neverwhere is no exception, presenting themes and questions that, while familiar, make you think about them in a completely new way.
Perhaps the most important theme in the book is loss of identity. The book refers several times to ‘the people who have fallen through the cracks’. The characters in Neverwhere are the outcasts, the ones the system has failed, the ones who don’t feel like the belong. The suggestion the book makes about these people, that they cease to exist once they fall through the cracks, that they become invisible and we choose to ignore them unless we are forced to have to acknowledge them, is an all to true reality, and it makes for a sobering thought among all the fantastical adventure.
Neverwhere is an excellent book, full of memorable characters, brilliant imagination, and a heart-warming story about a man who loses his place in the world, only to find it somewhere else. Equally as dark and violent as it is bold and magical, it is unafraid to make you stop and think, but is altogether a thoroughly enjoyable read. And once you’ve finished, you’ll never look at London again in the same way.