NEVERWHERE by Neil Gaiman
Harper Torch, 1998, 370 pages, 978-0380789016, Mass Market Paperback, $7.99
A few of Gaiman’s other novels have been reviewed here before, all receiving praise and positive remarks. Neverwhere, one of Gaiman’s earliest books, is no exception—this book was fantastic. So much so that I read it in a single afternoon because I just couldn’t put it down. This isn’t my first exposure to Gaiman, having read his graphic novel series Sandman and another of his novels, Stardust, but it is the novel that permanently reinforced my opinion that Gaiman is a master a crafting fantasy worlds that are delightful, mystifying, familiar, and unreal.
The story follows the life of Richard Mayhew, a man who, by all accounts, leads an average life. He’s got a satisfying career, a decent London apartment, and a beautiful, albeit controlling, fiancée whom he loves. Stability and routine govern Richard’s life until he comes across a mysterious young woman who goes by the name Door, whom he finds helpless, wounded, and exhausted on a dark London street. Being the good man that he is, he decides to help her, and it’s then that his life spirals rapidly into the unknown. His very existence seems to have been erased, and, to return back to his own world, he has to embark on a journey with Door through the Underside, a confusing and magical world among the sewers and tunnels below the surface of the city.
As some other critics have suggested, the novel feels like a grim, dark reimagining of an urban Alice in Wonderland. Much like Wonderland, The Underside is a realm that feels startlingly familiar as it sprawls beneath the streets of London. Several locales in the story are the shadowy sides of London sites unseen by normal people. Yet Gaiman weaves so many wonderous elements into the story that the seemingly normal London becomes something else entirely. The rat-speakers, the Floating Market, and the House Without Doors paint such a fantastical image that it feels like a completely new world. It’s a brilliant combination of commonplace and extraordianry that makes Gaiman’s London so fascinating to read about.
Like Underside, several of the characters appear, at first glance, like revised members of Alice’s crazy adventures. The White Rabbit, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and the Chesire Cat all seem to have provided inspiration for the creation of Gaiman’s cast. That being said, each character’s role is so wonderfully fleshed out that the similarities are skin deep by the end of the novel. Each one is a fully developed character, and they’re all incredibly entertaining. The Marquis de Carabas is full of snark and smarminess, but he becomes a favorite character because he can back up his talk with actions. Door is resilient and slightly callus at times, yet she is endearingly sweet and warm when she needs to be.
The most intriguing characters in the novel, surprisingly enough, are actually the antagonists. Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar are a true testament to just how well Gaiman can create bad guys. They’re intelligent, malicious, sadistic, predatory, and stark raving mad. They’re absolutely insane, and their macabre lunacy makes them incredibly interesting.
In my last review, I commented on the need for deep, meaningful conflict in a story’s narrative. One where the characters’ desires are in opposition with some outside force, and where their journeys come full circle with the overall plot. Gaiman does a fantastic job of this. The pacing is incredible, and the action is constantly moving forward. And, while the action is never exactly heart-pumping or extreme, it’s certainly compelling. Everyone’s motivation is clear in Neverwhere; we know what they want, and they continue to move toward those desires.
My one problem with the story would have to be the novel’s “big-bad.” While Gaiman weaves his characters’ journeys well into the overall plot, the main villain doesn’t get enough attention to be interesting. His goals are never fleshed out enough for us to find him threatening; Croup and Vandemar are seen much more often throughout the novel, and they are much, much better villains. Because we see so little of the main antagonist, we never learn exactly what his end-game is. We don’t know what it is that he wants, and because the stakes for our heroes are never clear, we’re never as concerned for them or their success as we should be.
That said, the story Gaiman tells is incredibly fun to read, and the Underside is such a vast place that he has left himself enough room to write a sequel if he were interested in doing so. Neverwhere is a fantastic glimpse at the world below the streets of London, and it’s one that is definitely worth reading.