Richard Mayhew is a young man with a boring job and a beautiful fiancée who bosses him around. I didn’t even like him at the beginning of the story, but when he stopped one night to help a bleeding girl who collapsed on the pavement, and chose to help her instead of going to dinner with his fiancée and her boss, I began to change my mind.
The girl’s name is Door, and if at first this seemed like a very strange appellative, it is actually fitting as she can open any door she touches. Door is on the run and on the night Richard finds her, he saves her life. Hunted by Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and helped by the marquis de Carabas, Door tries to find out who murdered her family and why. But that’s no easy task, as Richard will find out soon enough when he follows the girl into London Below, a place beneath the city of London. In the tunnels and sewers Richard discovers another world, dark and secretive and magic – not to mention more than a little absurd. There are creatures there that should be feared, and various shady characters with their own agenda. Among them there’s an angel named Islington, a life sucking creature called (what else?) Lamia, a king whose court – complete with a jester – is held in an underground train carriage, and a bodyguard named Hunter who would do anything to fulfill her dream of killing the legendary beast that roams the labyrinthine paths of London Below.
This is my second Neil Gaiman novel. I gave American Gods, which was my first, a higher rating because the action in that was more complex, even if a bit murky. What I liked about Neverwhere was the dark humor (I still think about that passage about a half eaten kitten), and my reaction to it was a combination between a giggle and disgust. In fact, this seemed to be the undercurrent running through the whole novel, especially when Croup and Vandemar come into focus – two of the characters that I found the most entertaining. Just when you read about some maiming that’s about to take place or some bloody scene, there’s always some detail that veers off into something funny.
One of the reviewers on the back cover compares Neverwhere to Alice in Wonderland and it makes perfect sense. I wasn’t a big fan of that book, but I remember enjoying reading the poem The Walrus and The Carpenter (what sick, sick creatures, I thought at the time) and Croup and Vandemar are their matching counterparts, so there’s no surprise I liked them the best, evil and funny and all.
Gaiman brings cultural references into Neverwhere, from names of famous people to department stores to everyday life routine, but after reading two of his novels and one book of his short stories it’s obvious that reading his work requires certain knowledge from the reader. You’ll get a deeper understanding of his stories if you’re familiar with legends and fairytales and even Alice in Wonderland. Even the names – one that felt a little odd while I was reading Neverwhere, was “marquis de Carabas”, and a simple Google search shed light on the mystery and I said to myself, yes, I knew that name but it was so long ago that I read about it that only a faint trace of a memory remained. Reading Gaiman’s books feels like going on a treasure hunt. He hides little gems between the pages of the story and if the reader discovers them, it enhances the story – if not, something is lost and the story feels a little off balance, like a feeling of déjà-vu that can’t be traced.
An enjoyable read but if I have to choose between his short stories and his novels, I’ll go with the former. Who knows, maybe novel number three will change my mind.
Here are some paragraphs I liked:
“The marquis spared him a glance, and then returned his gaze to the action in front of them. “You”, he said, “are out of your league, in deep shit, and, I would imagine, a few hours away from an untimely and undoubtedly messy end. We, on the other hand, are auditioning bodyguards.” Varney connected his crowbar with the dwarf, who instantly stopped bouncing and darting, and instantly began lying unconscious.”
“Richard wrote a diary entry in his head.
Dear Diary, he began. On Friday I had a job, a fiancée, 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 a Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiancée, 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 fruitfly.”
“Should have followed my idea,” said Mr. Vandemar. “Would have scared her lots more if I’d pulled his head off while she wasn’t looking, then put my hand up through his throat and wiggled my fingers about. They always scream,” he confided, “when the eyeballs fall out.” He demonstrated with his right hand.”
*Read in October & November, 2012