Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman was originally published in 1996, made into a TV series the same year, dramatized for radio by Dirk Maggs in March 2015, and re-published in July 2015 with Gaiman’s preferred text, as well as a new introduction and the short story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.” This is a review about the originally 1996 edition.
It’s the most important night of Richard Mayhew’s life. He is on his way to have dinner with his fiancée’s boss, a man of extreme wealth and power who just might put Richard on the right path to a rewarding career. But on the way, a young woman collapses in front of him on the sidewalk. She’s injured badly. Against his fiancée’s wishes, he takes the girl, known as Door, back to his place to nurse her back to health.
This selfless act seems to have opened up a new world to Richard—a world of invisible thugs, magic doors, and an ancient monster all right below the streets of London. But when one door opens, another closes. He quickly discovers that his life has been erased—his friends don’t remember him, his flat goes on the market, his desk at work is hauled away. Unless he wants to be living on the streets, his only option is to chase after Door and her theatrically swashbuckling friend the marquis de Carabas, who is about as dodgy as rats are covered in fur.
On a mission to find out who killed her parents, Door hires the best bodyguard in London Below, Hunter, who is on her own mission to slay the Beast of London. Richard finds himself making enemies with Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar (a pair of gore-loving thugs), making friends with the Earl at Earl’s Court and the Black Friars at Blackfriars, and drinking wine from the Lost City of Atlanta shared with him by a real live angel named Islington. Richard must overcome injuries, his worst fears (and let’s face it, he’s afraid of everything), and his own sanity.
I’ve seen the miniseries for Neverwhere and was surprised to find that it’s almost word-for-word the same as the book. Even though I knew what was going to happen, it was still a good ride filled with emotion and urgency.
The underground world, known as London Below, is based on the names for Tube stops (subway stations). So there really is an Earl in Earl’s Court. At Knightsbridge, there is a night that steals people away as you cross it. And there is an angel named Islington. The story makes several references to The Wizard of Oz, but I think it’s more akin to Alice and Wonderland. Aside from Door, you never know who is good and who is bad. Everyone is after their own gains, so no one can be trusted all the way.
Although Richard is the protagonist, the narrative slips into omniscient interjections from time to time, even including Jessica, Richard’s fiancée, who we thought was out of the story after chapter one. We get to see the cruelness up close with Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar as they chew heads off rats etcetera. They don’t quite become relatable even in a close narrative the way, say, Mr. Tulip and Mr. Pin do in Terry Pratchett’s The Truth (these characters have been criticized for being suspiciously similar). We do, however, get an insight into the marquis. He is my favorite character in both the book and the show (played by Patterson Joseph). He’s a Puss in Boots-style conman with a flappy coat and big boots. But in a moment of torture, we see briefly why he became the way he is. He’s learned that the world wants to be tricked and so he became a flash joke. This explains the way he acts—everything is there for his amusement and he is probably aware his behavior is amusing to others.
I’m still contemplating what Gaiman is trying to say about reality in the end. We know that, should Richard survive, he will either stay in London Below or return to London Above, as it’s been established he can’t live in both worlds. In Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, the protagonists return home and seem content to stay there. I think this supports the “Real life is what’s important, and there’s just as much excitement and adventure to be found in my own home” theme. A more modern, but already cliché, ending is the one where the protagonist gets what they want and realizes that they preferred being on the scary adventure instead. (Life on Mars comes to mind, another Wizard of Oz-themed show). This is the way Neverwhere is. Richard sees how boring the real world is and returns to London Below (or perhaps to madness, as it may be). Perhaps then the theme is “Better to live in dreams than settle for ordinary”?
I was surprised to see just how alike The Secret History of Moscow is to Neverwhere. They both deal a lot with the history of the city, though Neverwhere not so much, and not so politically or myth-based. But they also both have an element of hiding one’s life or soul away inside an egg so that if their body dies, they can still come back to life. Also, rats have personalities and are considered members of society just like people.
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