“It starts with doors…I’d watch out for doors if I were you.” says a homeless woman, reading the palm of the central character1 in Neverwhere, adding that he’ll travel to no London she knows.
As with all good prophecies, this one proves both accurate and misleading.
Richard Mayhew is a normal though aimless London securities2 analyst with an ambitious fiancee, Jessica. One night, on the way to dinner with Jessica’s boss, Richard stops to help someone who appears to be no more than a badly injured homeless girl. Despite Jessica’s urging not to get involved, Richard takes the girl to his flat, bandages her arm and contacts an acquaintance of hers to escort her home…
…except she’s no vagrant but Lady Door, last surviving member of the House of Arch, and is being pursued by Messrs. Croup and Vandemar, who, having finished off the rest of Door’s family3, want to finish the job. Richard’s act of kindness has sucked him into the world of London Below, partly where the unlucky people land when they’re sucked through the cracks of London Above4 and partly the sort of surreal nightmare we might get having fallen asleep while looking at a map of the London underground after watching an over the top BBC Regency melodrama. An Earl does hold court on an Underground car accessed from the Earl’s Court station, and there is a Black Friars5 monastery located at Blackfriars station, an ironworker called Hammersmith and a bodyguard called simply “The Fop with no name”.
This isn’t brilliant fantasy, mind–I don’t think the plot quite lives up to that early promise, and the humor does veer close to the tediously belabored style of Pratchett–but that said, my paperback copy is starting to crumple and fray at the edges as a result of my having read it so often. The idea of an underworld comprised of lost people and lost pockets of time, from which our nightmares come is an interesting one, as is explaining the invisibility of the mentally ill. Doubling in length might have helped; a complaint I have about a lot of science fiction is that it’s too short, and as a result authors are forced to cram not only plot and characterization but also enough description of what is, after all, an alien world to render it plausible. Something has to give unless the author has a publisher willing to chance a brick or as yet unwritten sequels. As it is, the denizens of London Below seem to spend an awful lot of time refusing to answer Richard’s questions on the premise that he doesn’t want to know the answer. In some ways, this does heighten the nightmarish aspect–we’re not supposed to know what’s going on in proper dreams–but can be flatly irritating for those of us who want Complete World Building. There are details I love: an explanation of just why we are supposed to “Mind the Gap.” and the Floating Market (and being able to trade a ball point pen and a book of matches for lunch).
I will confess to being confused at first as to why I preferred the audiobook version to the novel because usually it’s the other way ’round, until I found out that it is, in fact, what it appears to be: a novelization of a screenplay. It’s dialogue with description tacked on, and as such works well read aloud. It doesn’t hurt that Gaiman’s a good reader-aloud–not all authors can bring their works to life when reading6—but then not all books translate well to being read aloud in the first place. This one does, as it allows the book to revert slightly back to its original form.
Overall, I’d call this a great book for teenagers who’ve outgrown the fantasies usually put in the YA section but aren’t quite ready for more sophisticated novels, like Mythago Wood, Infernal Devices or the Inspector Chen novels.
1he doesn’t become the hero until about three quarters of the way through the book
2yes, there’s a reason for this particular job, other than the obvious yuppie overtones
3Lord Portico, Lady Portia and their other two children, Ingress and Arch
4what most of us would consider the ‘real’ London
5amongst whose numbers are, not surprisingly, a Jet, a Sable and a Fuliginous
6Bradbury’s reading of Fahrenheit 451 is an example that springs to my mind