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.