by Neil Gaiman (Harper Torch, 1996)
Neverwhere the book is a novelization of the 1996 BBC TV series of the same name. It tells the story of Richard Mayhew who inadvertently stumbles upon a murky, mysterious parallel existense in — literally — the underbelly of present-day London. Once tainted by what is called London Below (as opposed to London Above), he finds himself strangely inconvenienced…
When Scotsman Richard travels south to take up a new job in London, all seems to go pretty smoothly at first. He acquires a suitable girlfriend, he makes friends, has a decent job, and he tries to make himself believe he is contented. Then, one day, trying to do the right thing lands him with a very odd problem indeed.
Strange things start happening after Richard rescues a girl he finds lying on the pavement. For, in coming into contact with her, he inadvertently touches the existence of London Below, thus ceasing to exist for the people in London Above. His ATM card doesn’t work, his flat is let out to someone else — who don’t even seem to notice him in the bath as they look around! — and his desk in office is given to someone else.
Richard finds, to his initial disbelief, that a very odd, slightly disturbing world exists “underground”. The forgotten tunnels, long-abandoned Tube stations, unused wartime passages — all house a so-called “homeless” population of London. People who have slipped through the cracks in one way or another, people who can speak to rats, scavengers of the most extreme kind… in fact, people almost as diverse as those found above ground.
The rescued girl, it transpires, is Door, oldest daughter of an affluent family whose other members have been murdered. Door is on a quest on behalf of her late father. A quest that leads Richard, the acidic Marquis de Carabas and the legendary bodyguard Hunter to accompany Door on a dangerous journey that involves not just toil, tears and bloodshed, but also loss and betrayal. Dodging and outwitting the macabre and bloodthirsty assassin pair Mr Croup and Mr Vandermar at frequent intervals, Richard is more of a hindrance than help. All he knows is that when this is over, he has been promised his life back. But is it ever so simple?
Gaiman’s fertile imagination leaves the reader spellbound. Even though the idea of an “underground” existence is by no means original, it is the other elements that Gaiman weaves into the story that makes it a fantastic read. Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with London’s Underground will enjoy the way Gaiman plays with names of places. For instance, the mystical Night’s Bridge, the black friars of Black Friars, the eccentric earl who holds his court at… yes, you guessed it, Earl’s Court.
The characters of Neverwhere make for an extraordinary and enthralling cast. Right from Richard, your everyday ordinary “normal” person, a little overwhelmed in the extraordinary people he is in, from whose viewpoint we see most of the events unfold; to Door, the young woman around whom the plot revolves; not to mention others like the creepy Messrs Vandermar and Croup, the legendary warrior Hunter, Old Bailey and his pigeons, the cunning cat-like Marquis de Carabas, the enigmatic angel Islington, and more.
Perhaps what’s most endearing about Gaiman’s writing is that he successfully avoids falling into the gender stereotyping trap that a lot of fantasy does, sidelining women to a secondary or subservient role. It is quite hard sometimes to find strong female role models in fantasy fiction. Those who exist seem limited by what is acceptable in a present-day “liberal” justification of just how much control a woman is allowed to have. In Neverwhere among the most impressive people are the deadly bodyguard Hunter and the young but brave Door, both women. The so-called “hero” of the book is a total sap, to tell the truth. Though he has his moments, he largely has to depend on these two women to protect him.
Gaiman’s smooth narration makes Neverwhere a joy to read. He does have a mildly distressing habit of repeating certain words or names or sentence structures in a quick space of time, though one suspects that is done intentionally, and probably something one would gloss over unless in an obsessive-copy-editor mode. The book is a page-turner in the true sense, and there is hardly a dull passage. It just grips you when you start, and you only realize it’s over when you put it down. It would be wrong to say that it builds up to a rollicking climax — but that’s only because it maintains that rollicking pace right from the start.