Book Review: Going Underground with Neil Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman 336 pp. HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.
by Sierra Severt
Mazes, magic, murder, mystery. Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, originally published in 1996, is a work of urban fantasy that takes place in London in the 1990s. It explores Gaiman’s world of London Below, a sinister city of sewers, train stations, and tunnels underneath the city of London. The story of Neverwhere was first told in a BBC television series, but Gaiman later wrote it into a novel in order to fully realize his artistic vision for the work. For fans of dark fantasy and science fiction, Neverwhere is worth a read (or two)—its heightened sense of adventure, imaginative setting, and lovable characters place it at the top of my fantasy book list.
The plot of Neverwhere is a whirlwind of bizarre encounters and dark twists, with coming-of-age themes as the main character discovers a side of himself he never knew existed. At the start of the novel, Richard Mayhew is an ordinary young adult Londoner with an apartment, a job, and a fiancée – all of which he loses within the first few chapters. On his way to a fancy dinner with his fiancée’s boss, he stumbles upon a girl laying on the sidewalk, bleeding. Out of kindness, he helps her and “falls through the cracks” of London Above into the world of London Below. Neverwhere chronicles Richard’s adventures with the strange girl, named Door, on a quest to find the person who had her family murdered. Along the way, he meets the cunning Marquis de Carabas, the fierce Hunter, the violent and death-obsessed Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and the mysterious Angel of Islington. As the plot unfolds, the antagonist behind the murder remains unclear, creating a fast-paced and suspenseful adventure.
One of the reasons I love Neverwhere is the inventive setting of London Below, which lends an ominous mood to the novel and adds a noir element. The beauty of London Below is in its vague descriptions; Gaiman rarely explains its characteristics directly. Throughout the novel, he reveals different pieces of information, such as the fact that time travel, teleportation, and telekinesis exist. He references various dangerous locations and persons in the underground without going into detail, leaving the rest up to the reader’s imagination. There are angels, giant monsters, underground societies of monks, networks of people who speak to rats, and a not-altogether-pleasant creature living under the platform of the London Underground train station. As I read Neverwhere, I was intrigued by the artful and foreboding combination of the violent, the mysterious, and occasionally the grotesque.
The main characters of Neverwhere are Richard and Door, along with their shady guide, the Marquis de Carabas. Richard is a normal man, and amidst a flock of odd characters, his kindheartedness, confusion, and reluctance are endearing. His normalness creates a contrast with the strangeness of the characters from London Below. Door, for example, is a complex character. She comes from a wealthy, influential family of the underside and has the ability to open locked doors with a single touch. As for the Marquis de Carabas—a grandiose, sarcastic, leather coat-wearing man—well, his entire existence is an enigma. And of course, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, the comic villain duo, require an honorable mention. They run a murder service and have the ability to teleport and time-travel in order to kill their prey. While their motivations are clear and their characters are flat, their dialogues create humor and their pursuit provides an additional drive for the plot. Any time Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar appear, it is sure to be an entertaining scene.
Neverwhere is an inventive story with a unique plot, setting, and characters. A clever meditation on how much we normal people miss about the world, the novel is equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking. The complexity of the plot and the imaginative London Below make for a dynamic story and an interesting read. Neverwhere is ominous and dark, but also humorous and unique, a well-written novel that I would highly recommend to any science fiction or fantasy fan. And for those of you who enjoy Neverwhere as much as I do, here is a fun fact: Neil Gaiman is writing a sequel, titled The Seven Sisters, with an expected release date of September 15, 2020.