Audiobook read by the author
William Morrow (2015), hardcover reprint (ISBN 0062371053 / 9780062371058)
Fiction: fantasy, 336 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Harper Audio, 2007, ISBN 9780061549113, Audible ASIN B000XSAXXS) for the Neverwhere Readalong (#NeverwhereRAL), October 2015
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My official line is that I rarely read “genre” fiction. I’ve recently realized that my only real support for this claim is that when I go into a bookstore to browse around, I head for the “fiction/literature” shelves and rarely set foot in “mystery” or “science fiction” or “romance” or (definitely not) “Western.” And if that’s how I’m making the case, then my case is largely nonsense.
A sampling of titles from my all-time-favorites list suggests that even if I don’t read straight genre fiction, I certainly do read genre-influenced fiction, and the influential genre is usually SF/F—science/speculative fiction/fantasy. I rarely have the patience for it in pure form—world-building can wear me out, frankly—but stir some elements of it into a larger narrative, and it definitely works on me. I’ll share a few examples:
This year, I’ve added two more novels to that list: Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. and most recently, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I should note that I read both of these in audiobook format, which made it feel like they were being told to me, and I think that has a way of enhancing the fantastical elements of any story. (While I don’t include it in the all-time list, I suspect that’s a reason why The Night Circus has stuck with me.)
Neverwhere was Neil Gaiman’s first novel after establishing himself as a comics writer. An urban-fantasy exploration of homelessness originally written for television, it simultaneously feels utterly original and like a delightfully creepy reinterpretation of The Wizard of Oz. It creates the pre-industrial world of London Below beneath the present-day London Above. Both Londons are served by the Underground, but in London Below, there’s an Earl in Earl’s Court, Black Friars in Blackfriars, a Night Bridge in Knightsbridge, and an angel called Islington. (A side note on that character: I couldn’t help wondering whether the writers who created Supernatural’s angels were Neverwhere fans; I saw a spiritual resemblance, and that pun is completely intended.) In London Below, there’s a girl named Door who can open anything, anywhere, but she can’t show Richard Mayhew the way back to his life in London Above. In London Below, there’s a woman called Hunter for obvious reasons, and a man called the Marquis de Carabas for reasons never explained. London Below is aware of London Above, but the awareness isn’t reciprocated; those from Below who venture Above go unseen, and those from Above who fall into Below can’t go back.
I realize I’ve dropped quite a few breadcrumbs about this novel but haven’t connected many dots, and I don’t intend to. This is a story to be experienced. Neverwhere is dark and light, terrifying and endearing, smart and silly. It blends the modern and the medieval into something timeless. It made me want to watch Stardust again, as a companion piece, with a fresh appreciation for its genre-bending and humor. And when it was over, I didn’t want it to be, so I immediately followed the audiobook with the abridged BBC Radio adaptation (which I highly recommend listening to, but not until after you’ve read the book and can fill in the blanks in the story).
I loved Neverwhere, and I look forward to going back again. I’m so glad that Nancy’s readalong nudged me into reading it for the first time, and I’m sure it won’t be my last. I’ll be buying a print copy for my keeper shelf, and I’ll be watching for news on a rumored new TV adaptation.
Published in 1997, Neil Gaiman’s darkly hypnotic first novel, Neverwhere, heralded the arrival of a major talent and became a touchstone of urban fantasy. Over the years, a number of versions were produced both in the U.S. and the U.K. Now Gaiman’s preferred edition of his classic novel reconciles these works and reinstates a number of scenes cut from the original published book.
Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London businessman with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he discovers a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. He stops to help her—an act of kindness that plunges him into a world he never dreamed existed.
Slipping through the cracks of reality, Richard lands in the Neverwhere—a London of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels that exists entirely in a subterranean labyrinth. The Neverwhere is home to Door, the mysterious girl Richard helped in the London Above. Door, a noblewoman whose family has been murdered, is on a quest to find the agent that slaughtered her family and thwart the destruction of this underworld kingdom. If Richard is ever to return to his former life, he must join the journey to save Door’s world—and find a way to survive.
From Chapter One:
“She had been running for four days now, a harum-scarum rumbling flight through passages and tunnels. She was hungry, and exhausted, and more tired than a body could stand, and each successive door was proving harder to open. After four days of flight, she had found a hiding place, a tiny stone burrow, under the world, where she would be safe, or so she prayed, and at last she slept.”
“Mr. Croup had hired Ross at the last Floating Market, which had been held in Westminster Abbey. ‘Think of him,’ he said to Mr. Vandemar, ‘as a canary.’
“‘Sings?’ asked Mr. Vandemar.
“‘I doubt it; I sincerely and utterly doubt it.’ Mr. Croup ran a hand through his lank orange hair. ‘No, my fine friend, I was thinking metaphorically—more along the lines of the birds they take down mines.’ Mr. Vandemar nodded, comprehension dawning slowly; yes, a canary. Mr. Ross had no other resemblance to a canary.”