Book Review: Neverwhere
Full disclosure before I start talking about this book: I really like Neil Gaiman’s work. I enjoyed The Sandman series, I think that American Gods may still rank in the list of my favourite books and Good Omens deserves all of the praise that it gets, even if half of that praise should really have been redirected towards the late great Terry Pratchett.
My only issue with his work is that he has been repeating the same themes and stories over and over since he first wrote The Sandman. I understand sticking with what works for you, I understand obsession with a single idea, but I also understand getting stuck in a rut. I stopped reading Gaiman’s new longform work at Anansi Boys when it became apparent that it was following the same thematic arc as American Gods. I understand that his newer work has branched out down some new avenues, exploring the wonderfully dark young adult area around Coraline and Stardust, but I just can’t bring myself to pick it up and make the inevitable comparisons to his older work.
Which brings us to the book that I am talking about today, Neverwhere is one of Gaiman’s earlier and least popular works, wandering too far from the beaten track of his usual stories to appeal to the majority of his fans. It isn’t the first Urban Fantasy book to have ever been written, but it integrated a fairytale narrative with the horror and paranormal elements that define that subgenre in a way that was unfamiliar to most readers when it first came out. Gaiman wrote the television series of Neverwhere in the 90s and the book is technically an adaptation of its script, reintroducing the elements that were cut due to the practicalities of filming and expanding on the parts of the world that a BBC miniseries budget couldn’t cover.
There are some uniquely Gaiman elements to the story which nonetheless follow the traditional hero’s journey as seen through the lens of fairy-tales; all starting from the protagonist everyman Richard’s whole life being disrupted by his decision to make a single moral choice, resulting in him losing everything and spurring him on to pursue the manic pixie dream girl who accidentally destroyed his life into the mysterious underworld of London Below. The girl, Door is probably the most compelling character in the book despite the vagueness of her appeal, with a mysterious heritage that grants her the amazing ontological power to “open” things. Door’s pursuit by the inhuman assassins Vandemar and Croup drives the entire plot, and plot is entirely the correct term for this story, with a mysterious figure in the background pulling the strings on many of the characters to bring their desired outcome to fruition.
The tour through London Below showcases many strange characters and pun fuelled locales, from a “floating market” to an actual angel in residence below Angel Islington. It can be directly compared to Gaiman’s New Weird contemporary China Mieville’s two stories; Un Lun Dun, with the otherworldly version of London as its setting, and King Rat, for the updating of folklore to suit the urban setting. But while Mieville’s work delves into the darkness of the underworld, Gaiman’s remains fairly positive and upbeat throughout. The distinction between the two writers seems to be that Gaiman views the fantasy worlds of escapism as a purely positive thing, while Mieville prefers to study the negatives that worlds of wonder might hold.
Of all Gaiman’s stories, this one is the most quintessentially English, and the one that I believe best represents him as a writer. It contains in its heart the core of every story that he has written since, but without repetition and finesse wearing away the interesting edges.