Book Review: “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman


Title: Neverwhere
Series: Nope.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Pages: 370
Published: 1996
Spoiler-free Synopsis: “Richard Mayhew is a plain man with a good heart—and an ordinary life that is changed forever on a day he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk. From that moment forward he is propelled into a world he never dreamed existed—a dark subculture flourishing in abandoned subway stations and sewer tunnels below the city—a world far stranger and more dangerous than the only one he has ever known…” (Book jacket)
Reason for Beginning: I’ve heard all these years the worshipful praise lavished on Neil Gaiman by geeks and nerds, and even some trustworthy friends, but I haven’t been overly impressed with his short stories. So I was told to read his novels, where he really shines. Neverwhere, I was told, I would probably love.
Reason for Finishing: I did! Gaiman starts with a rattling superb premise and does it full justice.
Story Re-readability: High, I think. The pace is brisk, the prose easy and clever, the characters very interesting and likable, and the plot just detailed enough to reward multiple readings.
Author Re-readability: High. Finally, Neil Gaiman lived up to his legend. I don’t know if I’ll like his other long works as much as this one, but I’m now eager to give them a try.
Recommendation: Yes. I’ve a hard time imagining any lover of fiction who wouldn’t enjoy Neverwhere. It sucks you right in and carries you along, the kind of book to keep you reading late into the night. I can even imagine it attracting people who aren’t normally big readers of “genre” fiction; it’s a magnetic page-turner that repays its readers’ attention with strong world-building and worthwhile characters.

Also, I am proud to announce that the detailed review below has no SPOILERS of any significance to the plot.

Key Thoughts

Richard wrote a mental diary in his head.

Dear Diary, he began. On Friday I had a job, a fiance, a home, and a life that made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense). Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement and I tried to be Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiance, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruit fly. (135)

A really neat piece of fan art, symbolizing various aspects of the story.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere evokes the wonders and nightmares we imagine (or suspect) to lurk in the tunnels, subway systems, and catacombs beneath our great cities. It conceals many dark and fearsome mysteries, some which are scarier because they aren’t understood, and others which are the scarier precisely the more you understand them. Yet the overarching feeling one gets from reading this book is that of a witty pulp adventure that skips along almost cheerfully, acknowledging the presence of horror without submitting to it, and showing us also many welcome moments of beauty, tenderness, and humor. I don’t know if it’s high art, but it’s certainly high entertainment.

Door scratched her nose. ‘There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber,” she explained. “There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere—it doesn’t all get used up at once.’

‘I may still be hung over,’ sighed Richard. ‘That almost made sense.’ (228)

Patchwork societies of people and beasts—a few invested with magic, and many quite dangerous—have existed beneath us for thousands of years. Invisible to most of the Above inhabitants, these disorganized groups have a culture made of the scraps of human history: a societal organization somewhere between tribalism, feudalism, and anarchy, where clothing outfits may combine Elizabethan doublets with ripped jeans, and the subterranean streets may be lit by Dickensian gas lamps and 20th century cigarettes. These are also where go the people who “fall between the cracks” of the Above societies. London Below has homeless beggars who have learned to talk to rats, soldiers from a lost Roman legion who never reported back to their commander, and deadly remnants from ancient mythology. Often they travel through the London Underground, either making use of abandoned stations and unused lines or shielding themselves from the notice of normal Londoners through unexplained magic.

‘You’ve a good heart,’ she told him. ‘Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go.’ Then she shook her head. ‘But mostly, it’s not.’ (4)

Nothing in the securities business has prepared Scotsman Richard Mayhew for London Below. He’s a hero very much in the Arthur Dent & Bilbo Baggins tradition; that is, a mild-mannered, middle-class, normalcy-loving Brit who finds himself ignominiously thrust into dangerous adventures through little fault or desire of his own. I like him. In some ways, it’s his determined decency that causes him to be dragged into these adventures; if he were only a bit more callous and selfish, he’d have been left undisturbed. There are worse faults by which to fall into danger.

The Lady Door.

I also like the cast of distinct, engaging personalities that Gaiman has created for Richard to encounter. The girl Door is sweet and manages to be both approachable and a little enigmatic all at the same time; Gaiman gently teases the possibility of a romance between her and Richard, and cleverly leaves that an open, uncertain possibility even at the end. The Marquis de Carabas is an eccentric tangle of disreputability, honor, self-described cowardliness, conspicuous courage, and general awesomeness—similar in some ways to the Doctor, especially in an amazing and disturbing scene where he confronts the monstrous villains Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. Croup and Vandemar themselves are like more sinister and effective versions of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from the Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever.

He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.(13)

Gaiman’s prose style is a bit sparser than I expected, but it works well for his story. He moves everything along at a brisk pace, never dallying without something interesting to show us. He’s got a nice ear for clever phrases, sometimes for beautiful ones (“The Angel Islington was dreaming a dark and rushing dream.” [254]). Quirky British humor, of the Douglas Adams kind that explains the fantastic with references to the absurdly mundane, is present and welcome. Perhaps most importantly, his style can shift for the needs of the story.

That story itself I refuse to summarize. I’d love to discuss it with anyone else who’s read the book, but for anyone who hasn’t, you’re much better off discovering it for yourself.

I cared for the protagonists and loathed the villains. I smiled or laughed at the funny parts, grinned at the awesome moments, and was a bit tense during the dangerous moments. I had a lot of fun. This is the kind of book that makes your next visit to London even more magical than it otherwise would be, as you constantly find yourself wondering whether this particular subway train leads the earl who holds court at Earl’s Court Station, or whether this homeless guy can speak to rats, or whether this park or department store will be the next place to host the Floating Market.

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Author: David

I’m a young Christian American reader writer dreamer wanderer walker flier listener talker scholar adventurer musician word-magician romantic critic religious idealist optipessimist man.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman”

  1. I recently read Neverwhere too and loved it. You should read American Gods next; it’s generally considered his best novel. And I highly recommend Stardust, particularly the edition illustrated by Charles Vess, if you can find it. I haven’t actually read many of his short stories but I’ve loved everything else I’ve read (including his stuff for younger readers like Coraline and The Graveyard Book). And I love how he can take the most mundane and everyday things and create an entire mythology about it (like the homeless people in Neverwhere aren’t really homeless, they just happen to live in both London Above and London Below).

    1. American Gods is a possibility, as are Coraline and Anansi Boys, due to recommendations by friends. I should read Stardust, too, since I hear it’s quite different from the movie (which was fun, but not outstanding).

  2. I’m so glad you liked it! Good call on noting the similarities between Richard as a hero and Bilbo or Arthur Dent. (A bit of trivia for you: Gaiman’s middle name is Richard.)

    I’m not sure how well Gaiman knew Douglas Adams, but they were at least acquainted. You’re right; Gaiman can channel that same sense of humor. Also, I’m going to guess that the “unexplained magic” that hides the Londoners Below from the notice of the Londoners Above is tied to the very fact that the Londoners Above really would rather not notice weird things they can’t explain, and therefore their minds just gloss over it. That’s a recurring idea in Gaiman, Adams, and Pratchett.

    1. Yeah, I noticed that recurrent theme of humanity’s “weirdness censor” cropping up in both Gaiman and Adams (I’m still sadly Pratchett-less). In Doctor Who, also: that’s why the Tardis can land anywhere and not get noticed and why the Doctor and Companions never have to change their clothes to fit the time period.

  3. I’m really glad you enjoyed this one! “Neverwhere” is my favorite Neil Gaiman novel. I thought “American Gods” was superb and “Anansi Boys” was fun, but I didn’t enjoy “Stardust”.

    1. I read that Neverwhere was a TV miniseries at first, and that Gaiman wrote the novel to flesh out the story to better fit his vision. Makes sense, as the book’s structure seems very informed by movies/television. The way all the scenes are short and informative, for instance. I wonder if the original series is any good — in the right hands, the story would be great in a visual format.

      1. Unfortunately, I found the TV miniseries nigh unwatchable. I picked it up on DVD a couple of years ago after having read (and enjoyed) the book, but the TV show’s production value was so low as to make it downright painful. They would even reuse an (already schlocky) “special effect” five or six times in different situations, but flashing lights and cycling the color of a frozen image, in my mind, constitute good visual storytelling.

        I wouldn’t be surprised if there were better fan videos on YouTube, though I’ve never looked.

        1. Too bad about that. A quick search didn’t reveal any fan videos, although I did find a YT clip of the Marquis’ introduction in the series. That part seemed okay, though I could see the budgetary constraints. If they did a new series with an appropriate budget, they should get Steven Moffat to adapt. After all, he’s worked with Gaiman before, knows TV in and out, and would probably work well with the book’s twisty, dark mythology.

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