Neverwhere (1996), by Neil Gaiman
This is my fourth straying into the realm of Neil Gaiman’s work: I started with The Graveyard Book (loved it) then moved to Coraline (also loved it), then read The Ocean at the End of the Lane (a little over-sentimental at times, but quite enjoyable), and am now onto Neverwhere.
The protagonist is Richard Mayhew, a young man who moves from Scotland to London for work, and after a few years has everything a modern young chap needs in life: a job, a flat, a fiancé, and nothing out of the ordinary on the horizon. Richard is awkward, has little conviction, confidence or cunning, and is often slow on the uptake. He isn’t passionate or important enough to be an anti-hero, so he’s more like a non-hero, an everyday person and innocent bystander who wanders into a world he doesn’t understand.
After helping an injured young woman he finds on the pavement one night, Richard is thrust into the world of London Below, a place that makes no sense in space or time and is often trying to kill him. He becomes too embroiled in this world to return to his old life, where no one can really see him and he is forgotten as soon as their attention moves away from him. So Richard sets out to find the girl he helped who started this mess: the Lady Door.
Richard and Door’s meandering journey through London Below showcases the many strange, fascinating, unsettling, ancient and menacing places, times, people and creatures of London Below, a sort of dark mirror to modern, bustling London Above. As the Lady Door puts it: ‘There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere – it doesn’t all get used up at once.’
The plot is meandering and at times takes a while to get moving, but the ingenious and imaginative invented worlds of Neil Gaiman will never cease to amaze and inspire. I haven’t spent much time in London, but I can feel the bones, blood and spirit of it, past and present, in Neverwhere. And I am so very glad of the choice that Richard made in the end, recalling the important lesson that what we want isn’t necessarily what we need.