My second novel by Neil Gaiman far surpassed Stardust in my estimation, even though I loved that novel very much. It’s a testament to the writing prowess and fantastical imagination of Neil Gaiman that such a novel as Neverwhere could so totally eclipse a previous favorite of mine. Neverwhere is one-of-a-kind.
The narrative begins with Richard Mayhew moving to London as a young professional. He is from a small British town, naive and kind-hearted. After a few years he builds a life for himself in London, with a career, a controlling fiancée, and the pressure to build himself a conventional future. One evening, while on his way to an important dinner with his fiancée and her illustrious boss, Richard sees a young girl injured and bleeding on the street. Against his girlfriend’s protests, he takes the injured girl to his home and cares for her, protects her when two thugs come looking, and returns her back to a world called London Below: an entire city beneath London where magic exists and time looks very different. The girl is Door, the Lady Door whose noble family has recently been murdered. Richard finds himself entangled in Door’s quest for justice, and lost in the fantastic and absurd world of London Below.
The title suggests a mishmash of time and space, expressed throughout the novel by the culture and infrastructure (if you can call it that) of London Below. As one of the characters put it, “There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber. There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere–it doesn’t all get used up at once.” (228) Thus, there are Regency roads, old senile Earls, tunnels that were built in World War II, foggy, toxic air, remnants of The Great Stink, and all bits and pieces of London’s three-thousand-year history represented through both setting and character. It’s beautiful yet touched heavily with the absurd, like the Floating Market in a modern-day Harrod’s, with someone singing the words of “Greensleeves” to the tune of “Yakkety-Yak.” It’s London as if Gaiman had been allowed to build the city himself.
In building his incredible world, Gaiman offers readers no explanations, a mark of an excellently crafted novel. Who are rat-speakers? Who built the labyrinth beneath London if it was indeed there three thousand years ago, before the village was settled? What manner of magical human exactly is Door? There are no answers, but who would want them? London Below defies explanation, allowing it to be whatever the reader imagines. I’ve said before how Gaiman excels at creating adult fairy tales; in Neverwhere, he has created a whimsical yet frightening world that readers are allowed to both explore and make their own. It’s an ode to London, to all its denizens in all periods of time. Those who “fall through the cracks” are privy to another London; to me, it’s an interpretation of what happens above, and what has happened above, and to what will happen. To other readers, it may mean something entirely different. This is the power of stories.
My favorite aspect of this novel was the imagery included of London Below, people and places included (in this instance, characters may be perceived as spectacle as well as people!). Cleverly, cheekily, Gaiman takes Underground stops and interprets them literally: thus Blackfriars is populated with Black Friars; Earl’s Court is a tube compartment containing the entire court of an earl; Knightsbridge becomes Night’s Bridge, a bridge consumed with the danger of all-consuming darkness. At one point Richard even wonders if there is a circus at Oxford Circus. And then Gaiman takes historical minutiae like the closing of the British Museum station in 1933 and features it in the story. This is truly an ode to the history and culture of the great metropolis (in truth, and in the words of a born New Yorker, the second-best metropolis in the world 😉 ).
At one point in the novel Richard Mayhew visits a period of London history with Door, and it’s a London before there was ever a London:
Richard walked up some steps, and found himself at the top of a small grassy hill. It was dawn, and he could just make out details of the countryside around him: almost leafless oak, and ash, and beech trees, readily identifiable by the shapes of their trunks. A wide, clean river meandered gently through the green countryside…He knew then, without knowing how, but with total certainty, that he was still in London, but London as it had been perhaps three thousand years ago, or more, before ever the first stone of the first human habitation was laid upon a stone. (346-47)
He was, indeed, on the “awesome and terrible island of Westminster.” These settings, the fantastical ones like the Labyrinth and the ones steeped in real history like the foggy, pea-soupy air of London before the Clean Air Act, assert themselves as characters in the story, like the characters figure also as imagery. London exists Below in all times, all forms, forever. For Richard Mayhew, coming to London Above was a right of passage, but learning to navigate in London Below becomes the defining point of his entire life. He learns who he really is, finds courage and strength of mind, and ultimately finds it too appealing to forget, danger and uncertainty included. I found myself wishing desperately for a sequel.
This novel is truly astonishing in its Britishness. The narrative is set in third-person close focusing on Richard, but Gaiman’s narrator manages to manipulate his voice into the story. The humor is incredibly dry yet absurd, resulting in a playfulness that is characteristic not only of Gaiman’s novels, but of the atmosphere of London Below. It’s a place where anything can happen, and everything must be believed at first sight. Richard Mayhew stops asking questions at one point because the astonishing sights are unexplainable. It’s Alice in Wonderland meets Jim Henson’s world of Labyrinth. Without the muppets. Although that would be kind of awesome.
Gaiman, N. Neverwhere. (1996) New York, NY: HarperCollins.