Book Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Despite my gushing love for American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s other best known work (and arguably better known because the TV series came before the book) still holds a special place in my heart.

Neverwhere, I think, was the TV series that introduced me to modern urban fantasy. Co-written by Lenny Henry, there is something very British about the story and style of writing (ignoring the London setting) that has become Gaiman’s hallmark.

Richard Mayhew lives a humdrum and uneventful life doing a boring job. His fiancée Jess is superficial and vacuous and not particularly pleasant so when what appears to be a young homeless girl covered in blood throws herself into his path one evening, Richard feels compelled to help her despite the protests of his betrothed. Ignoring her, Richard picks up the girl and takes her home.

When she finally wakes up, he is intrigued by her strange ways. She introduces herself as “Lady Door” and discusses information about a London that sounds quite alien. At her request he finds the strangely-named Marquis de Carabas and the pair leave together. Afterward, things get weirder and Richard receives a visit from two intimidating gentlemen by the names of Croup and Vandemar. After ordering them to leave his house, Richard goes to work. However, his friends and colleagues can no longer see him and when he grabs their attention they forget him the second they turn away.

Irritated by this, he seeks out Lady Door to try to get back his original life. When he finds her she tells him that this is impossible. Soon he is embroiled in a plot that brought Door to him in the first place. It is a strange world this “London Below”, a place where there are black Friars at Blackfriars, an Angel at Islington, a ‘Knight’s Bridge’ that takes the occasional toll in human souls and all manner of other London-related things that are like our world but not quite. Together, Richard and Door and the other characters they meet along the way try to solve the mystery of her family’s betrayal.

The characters are colourful, especially the Marquis who is very reminiscent of Avon from Blake’s 7 but far more playful. The London that Gaiman has created is vividly depicted, integrated well as part of the homeless culture of the city. The plot is pretty familiar, as is the big reveal but by the time you get about a quarter of a way through the book, you don’t care because London Below is such an amazing place to experience.

I hope that Gaiman one day sees fit to take us back to London Below.

SPOILER: The final, final part of the book sees Richard choose to reject his old life, something perhaps reminiscent of Sam Tyler’s choice but far less dramatic in its execution.

Some comments on the TV series: I know this is a book review but it wouldn’t feel right discussing the book without the TV series that spawned it.

There is something that feels very small-scale about the TV series, almost as though the production crew were terrified of spending all of their budget. The Minotaur is a bull with a rug thrown over it for example and nothing about it feels particularly immersive.

On the plus side, it is brilliantly acted. Laura Fraser made her screen debut and her natural talent shines through. But the real star of the show is the fantastic Paterson Joseph who I feel can turn his hand to anything and is brilliantly cast at the Marquis de Carabas. Most of the rest of the cast are a who’s who of British TV of the 1980s and 1990s and they gel well together. The faults then are counteracted by far more strengths that make this a must-see TV. If you can though, read the book as Gaiman was able to put some things in place that were not possible at the time of filming.

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