Jun 16, 2007

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I have to learn to let you crash down
where are the velvets
when you're coming down

~Tori Amos, Hotel

There is nothing like revisiting an old favourite and discovering that it’s even better than you remembered.

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a Scottish young man living in London. His life is, on the surface, as good as it can be. He has a good job, he is engaged to one of the most beautiful women he has ever seen, and his days are predictable, comfortable and calm. But one day, when he and his fiancée are on their way to a Very Important Dinner with her boss, he sees a young woman bleeding on the pavement. She asks for help, and he knows that stopping to help her and missing the dinner arrangements will most likely cost him his engagement and his future, but he simply cannot not do it. So he picks the girl up and takes her back to his apartment, leaving his fiancée behind.

Now, in fairy tales, good deeds like this are normally rewarded, but for Richard (at first, at least), his helpful gesture costs him his life. Not in a literal sense – he is not killed, even though his life is threatened more than once – but he discovers that, for all practical purposes, he seems to have ceased to exist in the real world.

Richard finds himself dragged into London Below, an underground world where speaking to a rat is an honour, where a dreadful Beast roams a maze, Minotaur-like, where there are Black Friars in Blackfriars, an Earl and his court in Earl’s Court, a Raven at Raven’s court, and a floating market where the most unlikely things are sold – and this is only the start.

What I love the most about Neverwhere is how, using place names, Neil Gaiman managed to create a whole new mythology for London. I know that when I visit it later this year I will smile as I pass the places mentioned in Neverwhere, and part of me will wonder what might be happening underneath my feet, in the dark tunnels of London Below. This is what fantasy does – it enriches our lives. We do not believe it, and yet a tiny part of us believes enough for our world to be expanded, for real things and real places to gain further meaning.

Among the strange inhabitants of London Below, I think my favourites are the Velvets, which Tori Amos mentions in her song. These are pale, dark-clad young women who move absolutely silently. We only get to know one of them, Lamia, whom Richard finds the most beautiful of them all. And this brings me to another thing I love about Neil Gaiman – how the constant mythological and folkloric allusions in his work are so enriching. The word “Lamia" gives you an immediate clue about the nature of the Velvets, but some readers, like myself many years ago, when I read the book for the first time, do not know what a Lamia is. And yet, after reading it, they will perhaps investigate, and the meaning of the book will be further expanded.

If I could give Neil Gaiman a gift, it would be time – more weeks in the year, more hours in the days, more minutes in the hours. He has said, more than once I believe, that he intends to return to the world of Neverwhere and tell some of the stories it contains – the tale of Serpentine and the Seven Sisters, or more stories about the Marquis de Carabas. But it’s been over ten years now, and he hasn’t gotten around to it yet, because he’s been too busy telling us other wonderful stories.

I long for more of Neverwhere, but I think that only makes me love it more. What we get in this book is a glimpse of a world that is too large to fit its pages, but this is what the best fantasy does (and Middle Earth is a perfect example): it builds a world that is fully alive, complete with background stories, its own tales and myths and unexplored corners, and it leaves us longing for more. It leaves us filled with the desire to travel further into it. But isn’t this longing one of those things that let you know you are alive? For me, it’s not too different from longing for more after a great conversation with someone with whom you connect, or longing to get to know a person who you think could mean a lot to you better, or longing to travel around the world. And this is, after all, the reason why I read: because I know that every now and then I’ll find a book that will grant me a reading experience that will be among the most meaningful experiences of my life.

I had forgotten how much I love the ending of this book. I cannot say much, for obvious reasons, so I’ll just say it makes some excellent points about the role of imagination and fantasy in our lives. To find out how, go on and read this book.

Other Blog Reviews:
Trish's Reading Nook
Confessions of a Book-a-holic
Just a (Reading) Fool
My Own Little Reading Room
The Hidden Side of a Leaf
An Adventure in Reading
Rhinoa's Ramblings
Melody's Reading Corner
somewhere i have never travelled
Becky's Book Reviews
Reading Room


  1. I really like that cover! I liked the book, too, actually.

  2. I need to get around to reading more Gaiman than just Sandman.

  3. Kailana: my edition is somewhat old; you don't see this cover around much anymore. Which is a pity, because I love it as well.

    Dewey: most people will say that Sandman is his masterpiece, and I wouldn't argue with that, but, for me, his novels are just as good. Do give them a try one of these days!

    Miss Million: Hi! I'd love to know what you think if you manage to find it :)

  4. I read this for the first time a couple of months ago and really enjoyed it. Living in London really made it seem more real and alive, especially as I work throughout all of London and usually get the tube between places. I have read a couple of The Sandman graphic novels (must read them all again in order) and Smoke and Mirrors so far, but will definately be reading more.

    I loved the Tori quote, she is my favourite singer and I am going to see her in a couple of weeks time yay!

  5. Wonderful review, Nymeth. I'm looking forward to reading this one!

  6. I will definitely put this one on my list! It sounds wonderful and I've loved all the books by Gaiman that I've read.

  7. I got so excited when my live bookmarks showed me that you reviewed this one Nymeth ;) And what a great review it was!

    This one's one of my favorites too and I'd love nothing more than to walk the streets of London with this book. You HAVE to write about that experience for all of us. I'd love to see some more short stories from the Neverwhere files.

    Thanks for the Lamia link too! I never knew...

    And I'd like to take a quick moment to make jealous eyes at Rhinoa...I haven't seen her in years :( (Tori that is)

  8. Rhinoa, I can only imagine. And do read more of his work. I know I am a little biased here, but personally, there wasn't a single novel of his I didn't love. And how great that you are seeing Tori!

    Literary Feline: Thanks! I'd love to know what you think of it.

    Robin: If you loved his other works, I'm quite certain you'll love this one as well!

    Chris: Thank you! And worry not, I will. I will join you in the making of jealous eyes at Rhinoa - I have never seen Tori! :( She has never played here, and when she plays in Europe it's always at times when I either have finals and can't fly anywhere to see her, or can't afford to at the moment.

  9. you are absolutely right - gaiman actually manages to create a whole new mythology for london. which is amazing! i mean, we're talking about london here. its old!

    that is defitely one of the great joys of this book and what i really enjoyed about reading it!

    i live in oxford and going down to london afterwards was the creepiest and coolest experience. especially the tube! i kept expecting something to crawl out somewhere! it was especially creepy when the platform was empty...!

  10. hello, jean pierre :) I can only imagine how amazing that experience must have been. Hopefully I'll get to try it myself in the near future!

  11. its definitely one of the perks of living in england!

    also walking through the streets and looking up at old buildings and being convinced that old bailey is up there...

  12. I suppose that's the right word to put it: a whole new mythology. Gaiman is such a genius!


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