A review of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Reviewed by Bob Williams

by Neil Gaiman
Harper Audio 
2007, ISBN 978-0-06-137387-9, 10 CDs, $39.95, 12 ½ Hours

Neil Gaiman has provided the reading and movie-going worlds with the awesome spectacle of versatility and virtuosity that has few competitors. His career has included journalism, scriptwriter for the most outstanding comic book of all time (Sandman), skilful writing of short and long fiction, and a creator of the scripts for several movies. With his audio books he has brilliantly entered a field that although it has a shadowy relation to the world of literacy, can deservedly be the subject of much and serious thought. It restores, for example, the role of storytelling to primacy in literary activities and involves the listener to the fiction in a way that is yet new and with delights not otherwise obtainable.

This audio version has the distinctive, if curious, advantage of being the author’s preferred text. It is longer than the English edition by several thousand words and longer than the American by even more. That the two editions are not identical gives one pause and feelings of some exasperation with the often unintelligent crankiness of publishers.

Neverwhere was originally written for a British television series. Between the script and the finished product were numerous interventions that weakened and trivialized the original. Gaiman has said that if the television series had been satisfactory, he would not have written the book. Neverwhere shows signs of its origin in a television script: episode succeeds episode in boxcar style and the richness of characterization and the elaboration of structure familiar to us from Good Omens (written with Terry Pratchett), American Gods, and Anansi Boys is, if not absent, at least submerged.

In the world of this extraordinary book a subterranean London coexists with the London that occupies the surface. This underworld consists of abandoned subway lines, unused sewers, and unexpected extension of space into a vast chasm that holds, among other things, the beast of London, an enormous and invulnerable boar with a bad temper.

Richard Mayhew, a securities analyst, falls into this world because he has rescued one of its most influential occupants, the Lady Door. She is pursued by two vivid villains, Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar. The world of London Underground is rich with characters, rats that form a ruling class among the population, their servants the Rat Speakers and the birdman Old Bailey that lives on the roofs of London. The wealth of Gaiman’s imagination rescues the book from the limits of its original conception as a script for television and the result is a work of unforgettable power.

As a reader of his own work, Gaiman is clear and inspired. He renders Richard Mayhew’s Scottish accent with an ability that is priceless. But it is as Mr Croup – the silky, inhuman assassin – that he excels. This is a Grand Guignol romp that is constantly and refreshingly amusing. If Neverwhere becomes a movie, it should be as a cartoon so that Gaiman can supply the voice for Mr Croup.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places