Saturday, April 19, 2008
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
I listened to this book on my iPod, which I love to do. When I am being read to, I can listen while I drive and wait in the pick-up line to get the kidlets after school. I can listen while I am grocery shopping, or walking the dog, or folding laundry, or anything that is too hopelessly boring to do without a book--without having to carry around a book!
I do think the fact that this was read to me does alter my experience, however--characters are voiced by the reader in ways that I might not have imagined if I just read their words on the page. On the other hand, having this novel of "underground" London read with an English accent might have improved the experience. It is hard to tell.
This is an odd book--it was originally written as a television series, which Neil Gaiman wrote with some other people, and afterward he went back and novelized it. As such, there are a lot of ideas just bumping around, but not fully integrated into the story. This may also be because it is an early Gaiman work, and so suffers in comparison to more recent works, like and The Anansi Boys and American Gods which are both more fully realized.
The story is told largely from the viewpoint of an "ordinary" Londoner named Richard Mayhew, who finds an injured girl lying on the pavement, and feels a moral obligation to assist her. As a result, he finds he has been "erased" from his own life--as he stands in his flat, an estate agent shows it to an older couple who agree to lease it, for example. His fiancee doesn't remember him, his co-workers can't recall him. In the end, he finds himself in "London Below," a quasi-magical place of fiefdoms, animal totems, and an entire society based on barter of goods and favors. Haunting London Below are two thugs of "The Old Firm," named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, who are unfunny versions of Mr. Tulip and Mr. Pin from Terry Pratchett's The Truth.
One of the strengths of this book is the inventive inversion Gaiman gives to London Below, often based on the names of London tube stops. Knightsbridge is transformed into the Night Bridge, where the inky blackness of night can actually snatch up pedestrians, and they are never seen again. Earl's Court is actually the court of an earl, whose palace is contained inside a darkened train car. Ordinary people see only that the car is dark and closed: it takes the special powers of London Below to actually enter it and find it contains multiple rooms and grand hallways, much larger than the volume visible from outside it.
There is an angel called Islington, who is responsible for watching over London Below--apparently a demotion, after he failed to protect Atlantis, and may even have caused it to sink into the ocean. Richard Mayhew finds the girl he assisted in the London Above--a member of a aristocratic family named Door. Her family has the ability to "open" things that are closed; even to move between dimensions it appears. She is the last of her family; the rest were recently murdered, and Door is determined to avoid the same fate and to find out why they were killed.
The character of Richard Mayhew serves the obvious purpose of failing to understand all the aspects of this new world, so that the other characters have a reason to explain how things work. After a bit, he gets more than a little annoying, as he absolutely fails to learn anything about how to survive in this dangerous world. He repeatedly asserts things like "there is no bridge at Knightsbridge" and "there is no earl's court at E arl's Court." After about the fifth time he does this--and is proved wrong ONCE AGAIN--I found myself wanting to slap him.
To be honest, I listened to this book a month ago or so, and I have already forgotten a lot of it. It is interesting, but far from Gaiman's better work. Read it if you want to read his entire oeuvre; otherwise, spend your time more profitably with Anansi Boys and American Gods.