(1996/2021) Neil Gaiman, Headline, £8.99, pbk, 430pp, ISBN 978-0-755-32280-0
Somewhere in Hunter Towers – well in the cabinet under the TV, actually - is a DVD copy of Neverwhere the TV series, broadcast way back on BBC 2 in 1996. The show was created by Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry and certainly looks dated now, poorly lit with clunky effects, but has a great cast including Laura Fraser, Hywel Bennet, Peter Capaldi and Tasmin Greig. Seemingly the BBC ran out of budget before it could be properly finished, so in many ways Neverwhere the book (also 1996) addresses some of the TV show’s problems as Gaiman’s imagination has no budgetary constraints. Of all the books out there featuring a different, alternative, London as the location for fantasy tales and supernatural crime stories, I think, Neverwhere is the best, although China Miéville’s Un Lun Dun comes a close second.
In addition to the TV series, Neverwhere has also been adapted for the stage, as a nine-part comic book series (which was then gathered as a graphic novel) and an audio drama starring James McAvoy and Benedict Cumberbatch. Further, Gaiman has announced he is writing a sequel called Seven Sisters.
This 2021 edition includes an introduction, a sequel short story called “How the Marquis Got his Coat Back”, group discussion questions, an alternative prologue (although some of it did make it into the novel), and a short interview with Gaiman himself.
So what is it about? Well, Richard Mayhew travels down from Scotland to London where he finds a job, friends, and a fiancée, Jessica, who quickly takes charge of his life. He is treading water, occasionally being swept along by events and circumstances or dragged along in Jessica’s wake. On a very important night out with Jessica he encounters an injured girl who seems, impossibly, to have fallen out of a solid wall. Much to Jessica’s dismay and disgust, Richard starts to tend to her, loses her and follows her down his own rabbit hole into an alternative London, London Below where she is Door, the Lady Door, whose parents have been murdered and it is up to Richard and the mysterious Marquis de Carabas, and her bodyguard, Hunter, to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to her.
Gaiman knows London and knows how to make it twist and turn. Familiar names and places become very unfamiliar faces such as the Earls who rule Earl’s Court, the Black Friars, an angel called Islington and the very scary shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush, and throughout the novel are appearances by those even scarier killers and mayhem-makers, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, who don’t exactly kill for fun, but they get a lot of fun out of killing, especially with their deadpan humour. Indeed, Neverwhere is a darkly funny book, although Gaiman doesn’t miss the opportunity to highlight how hard life is for certain people living in London Above, after all, Lenny Henry’s original idea was about a story that featured tribes of homeless people.
Full of wonderful creations, arguably the best is Richard himself, who probably isn’t that likable a character at the start of the novel. He’s a bit of a lad, more than a tad gormless, who likes a pint and a curry, who gets pushed around by his girlfriend. He’s also claustrophobic, afraid of heights and not very street wise in London Above, which means he is even more hopeless in London Below, but slowly he starts to grow, riding his luck as he accompanies Door on an adventure to solve the murder of her parents in the dark, fantastic, sometimes deadly, sometimes funny, sometimes caring, surroundings of London Below. Gaiman fans who haven’t read this - and surely there can’t be many – are in for a treat, and so are readers unfamiliar with his work. Who knows when we will see the sequel Seven Sisters, but at least here we have a little taster in the short story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back” and I suppose for now that will just have to do. Recommended.
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