Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

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

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14 Responses to Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

  1. Vishy says:

    Nice review Delia! Glad to know that you liked the book though you feel his short stories are better. I hope to read that short story collection of his sometime. I liked what you said about Gaiman having many references in his story. I loved the second passage you have quoted. It is one of my favourites 🙂 Thanks for this wonderful review!

    • Delia says:

      I think you liked this book more than I did, Vishy. I enjoyed it but not as much as the stories – maybe it’s because in this book there were too many characters but none of them really stood out, whereas in the stories, the action is focused on one character and this makes it more interesting.

  2. Jenners says:

    American gods was my first Gaiman experience too. I am reading the graveyard book now and it is much more user-friendly. I agree you need a lot of knowledge to fully appreciate his books.

    • Delia says:

      That’s on my list, too, right after Anansi Boys! I’m glad to hear it’s more accessible. It’s a certain kind of knowledge you need but if you have it, reading his books becomes a much more enjoyable experience.

  3. An interesting review, but this book does not sound like one I would enjoy at all.

  4. M-----l says:

    I read this one over the summer. I enjoyed it but was bothered by the fact that none of Richard’s companions told him that the woman he was flirting with was an evil suck monster who could kill him with one kiss. They just let him fall behind with her on the stairs. If an evil suck monster started getting fresh with one of my friends, I think I’d probably tell him to watch out. But anyway…

    Did you know that Neverwhere was originally a BBC television series that Neil Gaiman later turned into a novel? I also watched the TV version over the summer. It’s very dated (mid-90s), but kind of fun anyway.

    • Delia says:

      Yes, I remember that part and the fact that it was odd that none of them said anything. Maybe they used him as bait, after all they needed Lamia to show them the way. And they did save him from her.
      I think I’ve read about that but haven’t watched the series. Must look for it, I’m curious to see what Croup and Vandemar look like.

  5. Very nice review, Delia. 🙂 Quite insightful.

    I finished ‘Neverwhere’ at 4’o clock this morning, and I am sad that the book ended. But, I am happy for Mayhew. I think he made the best decision.

    I still haven’t written my review, for I am trying to gather my thoughts. At 4 am, I thought ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ was better than this. Now – 16 hours after reading ‘Neverwhere’ – I think both were equally good. I am letting the book sink in. For all I know, I might change my opinion tomorrow, I guess. 😉 I will share my thoughts soon.

    I haven’t read Gaiman’s short stories. Do you have any recommendations? By the way, I loved all that you recommended a couple of months ago. ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’, ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’, and ‘Fahrenheit 451’. Hence, I am sure I would love Gaiman’s short story collections too. Thank you. 🙂

    • Delia says:

      Hi Deepika,
      Nice to see you liked Neverwhere. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is still my favorite Gaiman novel until now. I want to read The Graveyard Book at some point. If you click on the link that says “short stories” in my review, you’ll see Smoke and Mirrors. That’s a great collection of short stories and it also has my favorite, Snow, Glass, Apples. I won’t tell you more about it because I don’t want to spoil it. 🙂

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