Richard Mayhew has a life that most men would envy: He’s got a good job, a nice apartment in London, and he’s about to be married to a beautiful wealthy woman. But when he stops to help a girl (named Door) in the street, Richard soon finds that he’s slipped through the cracks into Neverwhere: a magical and frightening underground London that people like Richard never knew existed. How could he have known that his Random Act of Kindness would ruin everything? And, most importantly, how can he get his old life back?
Neil Gaiman rarely fails to amuse me with his creative concepts, quirky humor, and over-the-top villains, and Neverwhere, the novelization of his BBC television program of the same name, has all that. What it doesn’t have is a tight and gripping plot or exciting and well-developed heroes. Richard is an average guy who’s mostly along for the ride and Door and her monster-hunter bodyguard (named Hunter) aren’t too stimulating either. The best characters are the caricatured villains, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, ancient assassins who enjoy killing famous world leaders and biting the heads off kittens. This is totally and purposely overdone, and humorous because of it.
What makes Neverwhere worth reading is, without doubt, its wonderfully fantastical setting: an alternate London Underground. After visiting Neverwhere, you’ll never look at a London Tube Station map the same way again. Ever wonder how Earl’s Court Station got its name? Well, obviously, because a medieval lord holds court there. Who are the Blackfriars? And what about Islington at Angel Station? You’ll meet them all and discover what they’re up to in Neverwhere. I am not familiar with Underground London, but Neil Gaiman made me want to don a headlamp and begin exploring its closed off tunnels and tracks (“Mind the Gap!”). He could have done more with this setting, so I hope that someday he’ll write another novel in this world (a sequel has been rumored for years).
The other aspect of Neverwhere that I think is really well done is Richard’s confusion about what is real. Is he really in another world below London, or is he just going mad? It’s estimated that ⅓ to ½ of the homeless are schizophrenic and Gaiman captured their delusional behaviors so well, explaining them in the context of Neverwhere.
“Neil Himself” narrated the audio version I listened to. He’s a good reader and his voice is always pleasant, but I think it’s a little too light and upbeat for some of the darker scenes in Neverwhere. Still, it’s nice to hear the author’s interpretation of his own work.