I have been completely wrapped up in the world of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman for the last week, and having stayed up late to finish it last night, I now miss it. It is a rare experience: to have your own perception of reality altered by what you are reading, and it is one to really praise.
Richard Mayhew is a too-normal guy, a Scottish import working in London: a paper-pusher slowly on the up, with a beautiful, empty fiancé, a regular flat, and a wife-two-kids future carved out. A whole parallel London, and a possible parallel life for Richard, is suddenly revealed to him one evening when he stops to help a girl lying on the pavement. His London, London Above, then begins to ignore Richard, move around and exclude him, and he is forced underground into London Below.
Despite the instant connotations that come with underground – darkness and dampness; hellfire and eternity – I found London Below beautiful. Gaiman has taken known elements of underground London – including the Tube network, the Victorian Sewer system, remnants of Roman sewers – and integrated them into a whole semi-fantasy world; a society of people who have slipped through the cracks. Don’t let this sound as if the world has no agency, or longs for London Above: the world is intoxicating, hilarious, and full of detail and beauty. There is an order of black friars at Blackfriars; an Earl holding court at Earl’s Court; you have to watch out for those shepherds at Shepherds Bush; and Down Street really does go down. The Victorian sewers are appreciated as the red-brick Cathedrals that they really are.
The people living in this world are also injected with the same humour. Each time a new character is introduced, they are deliciously individual, often disgusting in detail, and delightful to partake in. The opal-eyed, pixie-faced, non-romantic-challenger Lady Door is a tremendous hero, complex, with doubts, but full of confidence and talent. And the pure viciousness of Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, assassins famous across all the ages, feel deliberately, nasty: stuff worth revelling in for the sheer ridiculous creativeness of the incidental things Gaiman makes them do.
It does feel however that all the creativity in both the Londons is stored underground: I found all the characters in London Above to be deliberately two-dimensional, vacuous and ignorant; while there were minutiae, jokes and complexities allowed for London Below characters. The dichotomy of boring regular London with the adventures of London Underground was unnecessary: it was already an incredible creation, populated with such individual and interesting characters that there was no need for a deliberately boring Other.
I also didn’t really get our ‘Warrior’, Richard. He is the Bilbo Baggins of this tale: unwillingly thrown into an adventure so much bigger and greater and awesome than anything imaginable in his previous life, but he is reluctant, grumbling, cold and hungry. When you love the world that they are not appreciating, it’s easy to get bored or build resentment against our lead. However, Richard does develop, and his duller-than-average-Joe approach never really gets in the way of appreciating the rest of the story.
What got me in this book, is that in creating London Below Gaiman has created a another reality, interwoven with the one we know. This book made me think I could get my out-of-reach Gin and Tonic using only my mind. This is how Gaiman’s writing works: he alters the fabric of the world you know, creating a story in a place that feels like it has always existed, right beside us. We can’t see it, maybe we don’t want to, but it has no made-up-ness about it: it’s just that only Gaiman has written it down.
And this is why I will keep coming back to Gaiman’s writing: it doesn’t feel like the story has stayed with me, it feels like my understanding of the world has simply grown. The world that Gaiman wove into our reality is now woven into my own fabric of reality.