by Neil Gaiman
Neverwhere is the third Gaiman novel I have read and the most outrageous. How to describe it? A fusion of the everyday with the world of nightmares, it features a large cast of impossible characters in matter-of-fantasy surroundings. The place is London. The landmarks are still there – the tube stations, the Embankment, Harrods, and so on – but this real London merges with an Underside like two parallel universes which only those ‘who have fallen through the cracks’ can appreciate.
‘ “Look,” said Richard, his back against the wall, with the glass dagger pressed against his Adam’s apple. “I think you’re making a bit of a mistake here. My name is Richard Mayhew. I can prove who I am. I’ve got my library cards.’
Richard Mayhew is a very ordinary young man with a job, a flat and a fiancee called Jessica. We can see he is somewhat timid and easily put upon. Jessica is the sort who wants to run his life for him and he pretty much allows her to do so. One evening they encounter a girl bleeding on the pavement. Richard, the Good Samaritan, wants to help her; Jessica will have none of it. They have a dinner engagement with her tycoon boss Mr Stockton (who owns all the Sunday newspapers that Rupert Murdoch doesn’t), and they will be late.
Richard takes the girl – her name is Door – back to his flat to attend to her injuries and there has a visit from two unsavoury villains, Mr Croup and Mr Valdemar. He pretends she isn’t there. After that, things begin to happen to Richard, not so nice things. His alarm clock and phone don’t work. He can’t find a taxi. The ticket machines in the underground station doesn’t work and the cashier ignores him. When he gets to his office (late), they are taking away his desk. His former colleagues, if they see him at all, pretend he doesn’t exist.
‘ “Bye,” said Mr Valdemar impassively, and he continued paring his nails. After that the blood began to flow. Wet, red blood in enormous quantities, for Varney was a big man, and he had been keeping it all inside.’
Soon Richard finds himself in London Below, where all kinds of bizarre things happen. Mediaeval courts are held in invisible carriages on tube trains. Rats are held in awe. Markets are held, Twilight Zone style in the Egyptian Room at Harrod’s. Now reunited with Door, and pursued by Croup and Valdemar, Richard is on a quest with her to find the murderers of her family. And the people they encounter all have delightful names, recalling London buildings and districts, such as Old Bailey, Black Friars, Serpentine, Islington Angel and Hammersmith, or characters in fairytales like the Marquis of Carabas.
Following the trail to the British Museum, Richard meets up with Jessica. She has seen him before, she admits, but has forgotten who he is. Meanwhile, Croup and Valdemar have captured Carabas, intending to torture him – Valdemar’s favourite pastime is crushing heads, while Croup has a liking for china (as a substitute for chewing gum).
Richard must undergo an ordeal and find a key before he can return to the real world. However, by now, we are wondering whether he can, whether there IS a real world, or even whether he wants to return to it!
A novel to keep the reader entertained throughout, Neverwhere takes fantasy to a whole new level. Gaiman is a writer with a fertile imagination and a tremendous sense of humour (at least, I think so). His approach to the fairytale is similar to that of Lewis Carroll, with everyday situations turned on end. Doors can be opened anywhere because he decides they should, and if one leads to a stinking sewer so be it.
‘The train doors hissed open. The carriage was filled with every manner and kind of people, all of whom were, unmistakeably, quite dead ….. The carriage smelled like a morgue might do, at the end of a long hot summer during the course of which the refrigeration equipment had failed for good.’
We can indeed see shades of Wonderland in this very readable fantasy, though very different from the one discovered by Alice.