Josh’s Review – “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

I read Neverwhere for the first time several years ago.  I think I probably stumbled upon it in my “oh-god-I-just-read-American-Gods-and-now-I-have-to-read-all-of-the-Neil-Gaiman” phase, and I liked it so much that I’ve read it two or three times since.  Given how Neil Gaiman is kind of the king, emperor, and grand vizier of the current fantasy world (we can argue about that later, for now let’s just accept it and move on), it’s a bit strange that we don’t have anything by him yet on Genre Lasagna.  Problem solved.

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a plain man living a plain life in London.  He has a mean fiancé and a boring job, but all of that changes when he encounters a bleeding girl from a place called London Below, the world inhabited by those who have fallen through the cracks.  Richard’s encounter with Door, the almost-dead girl, sets a series of events in motion that pull Richard from his normal life in London Above and plunge him into the dark, dangerous, and grimy world of London Below.  He sets out on a mission to help Door discover who murdered her family, and along the way they meet an assortment of odd, scary, and strange citizens of London Below.

You might be thinking that the above summary sounds a bit, well, average.  And that may be due to my ineptitude at putting words next to each other, but I think it’s also at least in part due to the fact that the narrative structure of Neverwhere is actually pretty straightforward.  Gaiman’s characters are, for the most part, not especially creative or astoundingly new (certain secondary characters aside), and the plight of the Everyman, the boring character who stumbles into a magical world and is carried along the crazy twists and turns of the narrative, is pretty well-used.  And that’s not to say that it’s a bad narrative structure–what better way to get a reader interested and involved than with a humdrum main character that could be just about anyone–but there isn’t anything especially brilliant about it either.

I bring all of this up just to make clear that Neil Gaiman’s genius in this book isn’t in a revolutionary, “Neil Gaiman you are a writer above all writer’s” kind of way that so many fans seem eager to ascribe to the author.  And hey, don’t get me wrong, I think Neil Gaiman is fantastic and amazing, but his status as an incredible author loses 25 awesome points every time someone claims that he’s the greatest writer of all time because he revolutionized fantasy literature or something like that.  To use a trite metaphor, if writing is like woodcarving, Neil Gaiman is awesome not because he carves from a different kind of wood from other writers, he’s awesome because he’s just better at carving than other folks.  Take Neverwhere: it’s a pretty plain story, and is made of the same general elements that we’ve read before in tons of fantasy literature (Bilbo, the humdrum hero who lives a pretty boring life, is thrown into a magical story; the Pevensies, plain kids from the English countryside, stumble into an enchanted world and stories ensue; even American Gods, perhaps Gaiman’s best known book, features a rather boring dude, Shadow, who suddenly finds himself in a crazy, god-filled story), but Gaiman is able to still make a cool, exciting story that doesn’t feel like the standard piece of carved wood (oh god, I really need to hop off this metaphor train).

I guess the question is: why is this book good?  And really, I’m not totally sure.  I mean, Gaiman is good at taking those stock characters and giving them the kinds of quirks and color that make them both still recognizable and very neat.  And he’s also really great at telling a story that gives away just enough of itself along the way to make you want to keep reading.  And there’s also the way Neverwhere seems to start out as a standard fantasy novel and then, somewhere between the 40th page and the 200th page, it becomes a mystery novel with a fantastic twist.  But none of those things, individually or together, is what makes this novel great.  Gaiman has a comfort on the page that so few writers have; I always feel like I’m being told a story straight from his wonderful, British lips when I’m reading his stuff and less like there is the middle man of the edited, thought-out text serving as a middle man.  I’m not sure that makes sense, but I’m pretty sure it’s better than the woodcarving metaphor, so we’ll just go with it.

So, do I recommend Neverwhere?  Definitely.  For any clear and concise reason?  Apparently not.  Gaiman’s book is fun, and it’s exciting, and it’s the kind of thing you won’t want to put down.  I happily give it five out of five pieces of lasagna.

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4 thoughts on “Josh’s Review – “Neverwhere” by Neil Gaiman

  1. Neverwhere is one of my top 5 favorite novels and one of the few that I have read on multiple occasions. It’s also one of two books on tape (yep, cassette) that I own (the other being Neuromancer). The book on tape is read by the actor who played Richard in the BBC miniseries of the book.

    NOTE: I haven’t seen the BBC series, but I heard it’s pretty bad. But then again, BBC isn’t exactly the best for high-end features, or any fictionalized show I can think of.

    And I could probably write an entire book about the book (if I decide to shoot for my MFA, I’ve got my subject matter) so I won’t blather on about it.

    “Gaiman has a comfort on the page that so few writers have.” I feel you’re spot on with this statement. I’m not sure if you’ll agree with me on this, but it’s one of the things I really like about J.K. Rowling: whether or not you like the Harry Potter Megalopolis, but I feel that she, along with Gaiman (and many others) have a lyrical feel to their work. I’ve also found many of those writers are British. Perhaps it’s their upbringing or their nationality or both, but they both, as you say, have a comfort on the page.

    A great book. Even though it is a classic plot-driven story, the magical realism (like many of Stephen King’s novels) brings the characters alive and the focus of the story is about the characters, not the story.

    I’m glad you took time to read and review it.

    Cheers.

    • Josh says:

      I completely agree re: the J.K. Rowling comparison! There’s a blog post roughly about this very thing over at Black Gate (http://www.blackgate.com/2012/01/08/temeraire-harry-potter-and-some-thoughts-on-ambiguity/). This guy would probably disagree with us, but I do at least think the consideration and valuing of prose style in genre fiction is an important thing that sometimes gets overlooked.

      I heard the same thing about the BBC series. Knowing my propensity for potentially awful television, I’ll probably watch it at some point, but after reading Neil’s introduction in the Author’s Preferred Text of Neverwhere (the one where he talks about all of the stuff he wanted to be in the show but was cut), I’m not all that keen to jump into it.

      And hey, listening to bookish blather is one of my favorite things, so if you ever feel like bouncing ideas around, you know where to find me. 🙂

  2. Jesse says:

    I recently re-read this one my own self. I first read it back in my high school days, so mostly what I remembered of the plot was “I have a boner” which occupies most of a teenaged boy’s mind at all times. On re-reading I find it to be a page turner. While Richard Mayhew doesn’t really have much going for him, the Marquis, Croup & Vandermar, and London Below itself certainly do. The fact that the book still holds such charm and readability roughly 16 years (!) after publication should certainly recommend it for any reader.

    • I agree completely; Richard kind of functions as the safe (sometimes frustratingly boring) center of the book, but the characters and places around him are more than enough to carry that book. I’m glad to hear it stood the test of time for you!

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