Book #34: Neverwhere (1996)

510J9VGDFPLauthor: Neil Gaiman
language: English
length: 372 pages
finished reading on: 9 June 2013

I’ve had a sense that Neil Gaiman was a good author ever since reading listening to Good Omens a couple of years back (the review is on here for those who’d like a bit of digging), but because he co-authored the book with Terry Pratchett, I thought I should read one of his own works. I bought this book in Edinburgh soon after finishing Good Omens, and I remember reading a few pages of it in the park. But I must have gotten distracted by something, and I hadn’t quite read enough pages to be hooked, and I ended up not reading any more of it at the time. Then I came to Japan last year without the book, and thus didn’t read it. Then when I went back to Scotland for Christmas I decided to take a couple of books back with me to Japan so that I could read them – among them was this one. This time, even reading just a little bit further than I had before I was hooked.

Apparently, Neverwhere was a TV show as well, so I’d probably better try and track that down. This book also has the distinction of being the only “director’s cut” edition I’ve ever read: it was actually published around 2001, not 1996, and was an amalgamation of the UK and US editions – the former having been published in a hurry to tie in with the TV show, and the latter having become too bloated by Gaiman adding back in too much detail. So occasionally the book contains phrases explicitly for the US audience, explaining perhaps that Oxford Street is the main shopping street in London, which seem superfluous and shoehorned in just because it was pointed out in the preface.

In Neverwhere, there exists a kind of parallel-universe underworld London, described as the place people go when they fall through the cracks. The hero of the book, Richard, finds himself in this world after he decides to help a girl lying in her own blood on the pavement, who turns out to be very important in the underworld, and has the name Door (spoiler alert: it’s meaningful). It’s variously described as magical, and often for real-world places there is an underworld counterpart, so that in Earl’s Court there’s actually an Earl and a Court (on an underground train) and in Blackfriars there are three black friars, and in Knightsbridge there is a bridge of ultimate night.

Sometimes his world wasn’t suitably described for my imagination, unfortunately. For example, I couldn’t work out whether the whole thing was set basically in tunnels – this was often not explicitly described. I couldn’t work out if “London Below” matched geographically with “London Above” or not – sometimes they seem to have to follow geographical lines, but sometimes they can skip across great distances without much effort, and come out of a door that isn’t normally there.

But most of the time, it was described vividly. Not a lot of information about the world is given at once – we are basically expected to work it out at the same rate as the main character – but a mythology builds up around him as the story progresses. For instance, there’s a “Floating Market” which takes place every so often in different locations, but nobody knows how the location is chosen, as it just goes round by word of mouth. In the story it takes place first in Harrod’s, then on the Cutty Sark, presumably so that they could give a tourist’s eye view of London in the TV show (they also visit the British Museum at one point). It’s implied that literally anything can be bought there, but they barter instead of using cash (I don’t know how that would work to be honest). London itself is described lovingly, as most media about the city seem to do. It makes it seem like a very desirable place to be.

There are strong hints that London Below is a metaphor for the people in the real world who fall through the cracks – drug addicts or homeless people, for instance. Residents of London Below are completely invisible to others unless they talk directly at them and even then, it’s fleeting. The main character has a scene halfway through in which he sees a version of himself as a guy who just disappeared and went off the rails for a few weeks, instead of galavanting around an imaginary parallel London. In the story it’s actually a hallucination, but then it’s challenging which one is real and which isn’t.

Anyway, where the descriptions of the setting sometimes failed to capture me, the characters certainly didn’t – each has their role and a distinctive personality. Sometimes these fall squarely into tropes – Croup and Vandemar, the bad guys, are one such example, as they neatly fit the idea of one brainless strong guy and one guy who thinks he’s clever. But pretty much all of them are well thought out, and I enjoyed reading about them.

So it was good, in general. I just need to decide which book to read next. I’ve heard a lot about his comic books such as “Sandman”, too, maybe those? I’d just have to find them cheaply, though; they’re over $20 in the stores here.

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