A story brimming with some of the most unique characters you are ever likely to encounter in a novel of any genre. But it is not just the enthralling enigmas that will keep you hooked, but a story that is both surreal and yet very tangible. Neil Gaiman at his worst is exceptional, and this is him at his best.
There are stories that scream their critical acclaim from the rooftops, threatening to devour the time of all within earshot. There are novels that are praised by many but hide under the surface, their presence just a shimmer to the majority of the reading community. And then there are some that are almost lost in the obscurity of history, biding their time until they will one day be recognised by the masses. Neverwhere falls in to the third category, which is such a shame because it is one of the best stories I have ever read.
A little snippet of information for you – Neverwhere did not start life as a book. Rather, it was a six-part BBC TV series that was the brainchild of Lenny Henry and Neil Gaiman. Where Henry wanted to create a series based around the homeless of London, Gaiman was worried that such a glorification of that lifestyle would coax younger, more fragile minds to desire to be part of it. Born from that marriage of intriguing ideas was a series so quaint and unusual that Gaiman wanted to expand on it. So where you may think that Neverwhere is a simple adaptation of the BBC show, it is in fact an expansion. This is no afterthought, but a way for Gaiman to truly develop his ideas in the dreamlike, often comical, and always enigmatic way that he does.
This had not been a story that was on my radar and the only reason I found it was because of my love for the Sandman comics. I adore Neil Gaiman’s worlds and find that he is unparalleled in his comically influenced character creation and development, even in novels that are not epic in length. So I looked in to his back catalogue and this stood out to me simply because of the residual memory of the series. So I bought it, and within three days I completed it. In truth I struggled to put it down and it captured me in a way that a novel hasn’t for a very long time.
First off let me give you a quick overview of the story. Our protagonist is Richard Mayhew, an unassuming Scottish guy living in London, working in an office, engaged to a prude and pretentious career orientated woman named Jessica (not Jess – she does not like pet names). One night, after messing up the arrangements for a dinner date with Jessica and her boss, Richard stumbles on to a wounded young girl named Door, whom he feels compelled to help. The next day he finds his life turned upside down. He loses his job and his fiancée, he is ignored by everyone, and finds that his flat has been given away as he apparently no longer exists in the real world. And there begins his journey through the surreal, embroiled in a plot amongst the people who have “fallen through the cracks” of London and live in a world that is very different than the one we know. Hunted by an enigmatic pair of assassins who are hired by a mysterious benefactor, Richard must help Door and her companions unravel the mystery around the deaths of her family and the incessant hunt that they are prey of.
From here on out you drawn in amongst a group of eccentric characters, ranging from the homeless rat talkers, to the flamboyant Marquis de Carabas, and it is in these characters that Gaiman truly finds his strength. The Marquis is almost antagonistic in his ambivalence, drawn in to our heroes’ plight apparently only through some grudging debt. But as his story progresses, so does he, and in ways that you would not expect. Through this mysticism Gaiman gives us his unusual, and perfected, strand of twists.
Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, while out and out villains, are not of your usual ilk. They are not as you would expect assassins to be. One short, fat and a master in the art of circumlocution, the other tall, gangly and excessively dim-witted. They are a counterpoint to each other, but they complement each other in such a way that should be impossible. Much comedy is derived from their seemingly nonsensical prattling, especially Mr Vandemar’s deadpan ignorance.
There are some stumbling blocks, however. With such an eclectic mix of characters, there were bound to be some that did not stand out. This is not to say that they were not good, simply that they were drowned in the sea of excellence. Richard Mayhew, the main character and ostensible everyman, was one such character. In comparison to the wealth of eccentricity he came across as, well, too ordinary. And I guess that was the point. He was there as our guide through this new and strange world, but unfortunately I found myself drawn to the characters around him, often remiss of his plight. The Angel Islington was another slightly desultory character. In a world where Gaiman strays from the norm, the Angel Islington is a bit too much of what we expect.
Well-developed unique characters are a welcome addition to any novel, but they never reach their full potential unless they have an equally great story to weave their way through. And I’m happy to say Neverwhere is a great story. It’s fantastical. It’s unique. It’s a huge and welcome stretch of the imagination. It is also many other clichéd synonyms for a writer who has positioned himself at the front of the pack in weird fiction. If you know Gaiman’s work then when you pick up this book you know what to expect, in that you know you cannot possibly expect whatever is on the next page. It somehow manages to be both fun and hard hitting. It dwells on a major problem within city life, but never lingers on it enough to make you feel guilty or, even worse, make you want to delve in to that world. The comedy is natural and threaded seamlessly in to the conversations and actions of its characters, and, apart from a slightly protracted ending, it knows exactly where it wants to go and how to take you there.
The only real criticism that I have of this book is the ending. It has a twist that is slightly stilted. I say that, however, after decades of experiencing such twists. Maybe, contemporaneously, the twist may have elicited the intended amount of shock and awe, but unfortunately it has not aged well. And what happens beyond this also seems slightly drawn out, as if Gaiman struggled to find a natural end to what had been an otherwise eventful finale. But none of this lessens the impact of the story. In fact it was almost a soothing tranquillity after the enjoyable chaos that preceded it.
If you are a fan of Gaiman’s work, or weird fiction in general, then this is a must read. If you have never been introduced in to this realm of reading then I highly recommend you start here. The characters will keep you guessing and the story will keep you gripped. Neverwhere may not be an epic in length, but it is certainly one is scale, and will apparently forever be on of Neil Gaiman’s most underappreciated works.