by Neil Gaiman
One of the most enjoyable weeks I have spent commuting to and from my workplace was the week I borrowed the CD book of Neil Gaiman himself reading his "Author's Preferred Text" of this novel. This is the novel that, in 1996, really put him on the map for those of us who missed the Sandman graphic novels and the BBC teleseries (co-written by Lenny Henry) on which this book was based. In fact, it is now regarded as something of a classic, the starting point of a flourishing genre of "London Below" fiction, so that the dust-jacket blurbs of such books as Mike Shevdon's Sixty-One Nails and China Miéville's Un Lun Dun tout them as "Neverwhere for the next generation," or the like. Having read those books before this one, I can't help sensing that I've fallen behind the class!
Well, thanks to the miracle of audiobooks, I'm not so far behind now. And I can't complain that the book reader didn't know the author's intentions. With Gaiman himself reading his preferred text, I learned that he has a good voice for storytelling, that he knows how to sell a variety of character voices and British dialects, and that he may even be as good an actor as writer. An all around entertainer, our Neil is. And judging from the fact that London seems to occupy more alternate realities than any other city on Earth, his influence appears to be spreading.
Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London office worker with a gentle spirit, a bossy fiancée, and a blissfully ordinary life. One night as Richard is walking to a dinner date, an encounter with a gravely injured street person knocks his life out of its comfortable groove. Because he stops to help a filthy and bleeding girl named Door, Richard loses his fiancée, his job, his flat, and finally, his connection to reality as he knows it. Suddenly people can no longer see or hear him, or remember that he existed. So Richard goes underground. Literally. Down into the London Below, from which Door came and to which she has returned.
All Richard really wants is a way back to the life he knew. But before he can get it, he must learn to believe six thousand impossible things, and without the benefit of breakfast. He meets people who can communicate with birds and rats. He encounters an angel, a vampire-like creature called a velvet, a legendary beast, and a dead man come back to life. He makes friends with a girl who has the power to open any door, even where there wasn't a door before; and he makes enemies with two characters who have been torturing and killing for fun and profit since the world began. He visits a "floating market" where more or less fabulous beings swap more or less fabulous items; he undergoes an ordeal that many have tried before, but none have survived; and he demonstrates a curious blend of abject cowardice and heroic courage that ensure, whether or not he gets home to London Above, that London Below will never be the same.
Richard and Door are a likable couple. So are some of their dodgier neighbors in the underworld of magic, menace, and outright madness; though you may not immediately guess which ones are and aren't to be trusted. Through Gaiman's written and spoken word, they live vividly in my imagination. I am actually afraid to watch the BBC series, lest the world of Neverwhere become an obsession. I already have plenty of obsessions. But my inner world has plenty of room for another first-rate fantasy like this!
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 13+
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