Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Continuing my series of book reviews for writers, I had to confess to a writing buddy recently that I had never read a Neil Gaiman book. How was that possible? He is everywhere and acclaimed and, well, everywhere. I suppose I have just too many books to read, and nobody has ever said to me ‘You need to read this book!’ So, I did a quick Google search and came up with 5 or 6 suggestions. ‘Neverwhere’ jumped out as the novel that seems to have launched Gaiman, so I picked that and dove in.
It is fantasy, and I have read little fantasy since high school. I majored in English Literature at UBC and there wasn’t much on the syllabus. My taste still tends toward literary fiction or non-fiction, or books on the writing craft. I hope I don’t have any arrogance towards genre fiction. I don’t think so.
First impression was the ‘Neverwhere’ was a nice easy read. I didn’t have to take notes, like I did with Aislin Hunter’s ‘The World Before Us’, one of my favourites. It starts fresh, simple and down to earth. Slightly sad sack Richard Mayhew out for drinks before leaving Scotland for London. I have visited London a few times so I felt comfortable with the setting. And, at this point, I didn’t know it was a fantasy story. (I try not to read reviews before reading a book or writing a review myself. I like to capture my fresh opinion.)
Richard was a little milquetoast at first. What does he want and what does he need are questions that come to the reader much later. But fortunately we meet Jessica and Door who know exactly what they want. And we meet a couple of outstanding villains in Mr.Coup and Mr.Vandemar. That Door lands at Richard’s feet as a damsel in distress, and that he reacts in a wonderful manly fashion made me laugh. I recently read Jessica Brody’s ‘Save The Cat! Writes a Novel’, and Gaiman follows her advice to a tee by having Richard save Door. How can we not like him?
“Neverwhere’ is a rollicking tale, set in a weird netherworld underneath London Above. The suspension of disbelief works well, as there is enough actual location and English flavour to give it a grounding, much like the first Harry Potter book, published almost the same year.
The characters, beside Richard who is pretty weak for the first half of the book, are vivid, well presented, and invested in the quest. There is no doubt what Door wants and the stakes are high. Life or death, which is great. The story grabs the reader, pulls them forward, where we engage and want to see what will happen next. As David Maas would say, amp it up. Ask myself ‘So what?’ If they fail to work things out, what is lost?’ Here, everything.
Character, setting, story. At this point I am thinking Gaimann is batting a thousand. I immersed into the book and read it in three days. Fun, entertaining.
But. As I finished and set it down, some of the less significant flaws came out. Character names like Door, Hunter, Islington, Old Bailey, Serpentine, and Anaesthesia and labels for types. Almost cartoon names. There is a set-piece feel to the story. And any larger themes are thin. What happens to Door post action is a mystery, and any kind of personal growth comes only to Richard as an afterthought.
But. It is fantasy and if a reader comes to the story expecting that, I would call this book an enormous success. The basic elements of a great read are all here; Character, Setting, Story. Highly recommended.
May 24, 2021