When I was a young child, I had pretty distinctive “likes” and “dislikes” when it came to reading. I was fond of thinking of myself as an avid reader, but I refused to read (unless required) any books that had boys as main characters (too boring, according to me, then). I also refused to read any books that used overly dialectal dialogue (especially if that dialect was in any way backwoods-y). Also, not being myself a fan of being dirty, I didn’t really like to read stories where the characters were dirty and their dirtiness was a matter of description or discussion. No, I preferred stories starring female protagonists who were perennially clean (or I never heard otherwise) and spoke the Queen’s English.
Happily, my reading horizons have broadened, although to this day, I believe dialect is something quite easily overdone and very easy to get wrong. But I can now read books with male protagonists without getting bored, and while descriptions of filth might still induce a flinch or two, I can usually soldier through them. So it is a bit of a strange coincidence that when I tell you how I loved reading Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, for all its descriptions of filth and malodorousness, that the adjective that first comes to mind is “sparkling”.
I remember when I was young being a little surprised, on visiting the coast, that where the land ends and the ocean begins — something that appears so solid and well-defined on paper — shifts and moves around in real life. In my imagination it made for an intriguing between-space. Gaiman’s book reminded me a little of that daydream, because Neverwhere is about the cracks, and the things and people that fall through them.
Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young man living in London, who stops to play the Good Samaritan to a girl bleeding on the sidewalk and finds his life suddenly turned upside down. Suddenly, it is as though he never existed. In Neverwhere, there is a London Above, where the “normal” people live “normal” lives not seeing the people who have fallen through the cracks to London Below. London Below, where Richard finds himself, is a dangerous place filled with strange people who can understand animals’ speech. (There are also a great many smells.) And in London Below, Richard’s adventures will require him to be very brave indeed.
If the great story were not enough reason to read Neverwhere, Gaiman’s prose sparkles:
“Metaphors failed him, then. He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.”
And it is rich with literary allusion:
“There was hysteria in there, certainly, but there was also the exhaustion of someone who had managed, somehow, to believe several dozen impossible things in the last twenty-four hours, without ever getting a proper breakfast.”
To me, Neil Gaiman is a master storyteller, and in Neverwhere he has crafted (with an almost Dickensian facility for nomenclature) a modern fairy tale, full of heroes and villains and people who fall somewhere in between.