Review by Lory Widmer Hess
I wouldn’t normally expect much of a book created as the novelization of a TV series, but in this case, you know—Neil Gaiman. His first solo novel (after collaborating with Terry Pratchett on Good Omens) arose out of a 1996 BBC mini-series that, unsurprisingly, put some limits upon his imaginative scope with its budgetary constraints. Fortunately, he simply decided to put anything that couldn’t go on screen into a book, and Neverwhere is the result. Never yet having sampled this somewhat unusual concoction, a new Folio Society edition offered me a simply irresisible invitation to plunge into the “magic and the sewers and the dark,” exploring a fantasy master’s fictional origins.
Gaiman is nothing if not conversant with the tropes and conventions of folklore and fantasy literature, but he likes to come at them from a different, slantwise angle. For example, in fairy tales, the hero or heroine often helps some poor, helpless-appearing person or creature who confers blessings and even magical powers upon his or her rescuer. Contrairiwise, in Neverwhere, Gaiman’s protagonist Richard Mayhew falls into deep trouble when he stops to help a mysterious young woman who’s suddenly appeared from nowhere at his feet on a London sidewalk. Soon he finds that his well-meaning gesture has robbed him of his former life, his dull but safe job, apartment, girlfriend, and even his identity in London Above, where ordinary people now fail to see or hear him, while unpleasant characters are stalking him at every turn.
Like it or not, Richard has dropped down into London Below, a place for those who’ve fallen through the cracks in the world. But could it be that he’s fallen into a kind of “good trouble”? Maybe dull and safe is not all there is to life, or to Richard himself.
Gaiman has said that he wrote Neverwhere as an adult version of Alice in Wonderland, and the world into which Richard is plunged is as dark and disturbing as that other Underground, a realm of assassins, rats, grime, and blood, of double-crossing aristocrats and traveling markets, where nothing can be relied on to be what it seems or even to stay in one place. Like Wonderland, it’s also built on wordplay; a running gag is that London placenames and stops on the Underground are to be taken literally. The Angel of Islington is really an angel, although of a morally dubious variety; Earl’s Court manifests as a sort of modern-day medieval progress, accessed through one of those cars you always see passing by on the Underground with its lights off; Blackfriars is the home of a Dominican brotherhood tasked with putting visitors through a mysterious ordeal, and so on.
A major difference from Carroll’s classic is that while Alice does not change in the slightest from beginning to end of her adventures—her matter-of-fact response to everything wild that happens to her is the basis of much of the humor—Richard grows and changes inwardly as a result of his experiences. As he trails along behind the girl he rescued, Door, he becomes part of her quest to discover who killed her parents and siblings and how she can avoid being the next victim—first relucantly, and then with more determination as he gets to know his companions, and unlocks hidden capacities in himself.
Door’s name is part of the wordplay, for her family was famed for its magical powers of opening. Richard’s own surname, Mayhew, seems to indicate that he might achieve something worthwhile, could possibly cut through to the truth of the discombobulating chaos that’s gotten him in its grip, but it’s not a given. Through a series of trials and errors, he pushes his way through to the truth, which is that the comfortable old life he’s been longing to return to was a sham and a trap. It’s in this dangerous, chaotic,ambiguous world of London Below that he truly belongs.
Like Richard, the text has a somewhat complicated history. The Folio Society edition incorporates Gaiman’s definitive version, which went through a couple of revisions, as explained in the author’s own introductory note. To this is added a fine introduction by Susanna Clarke, an alternate prologue, and a short story that brings back one of the novel’s most beloved characters. Printed on thick paper with generous margins, the book is a weighty object that lends solidity to Richard’s liminal travels. I especially loved the chosen typeface: Mentor, a twenty-first century interpretation of classic Roman lettering that has been crafted with a meticulous attention to detail, recalling both traditional and modern styles in the most appropriate way, and generously sized for reading.
The artwork by Chris Malbon includes vignettes at the head of each chapter, nine full-page illustrations including two double-page spreads, and a particularly spectacular binding design and slipcase that portray, respectively, Richard’s fall into London Below and Door’s crashing through into London Above. Malbon is adept at drawing forms with a sharply realistic touch, then twisting them into something slightly phantasmagorical, mixing the ordinary with the colorful, extreme, and strange. All this is pitch-perfect, but I wish a London Below map of some sort could have been added, difficult though that might have been to pin down.
Aside from that, I found Neverwhere a thoroughly magical production on all levels. For those who have yet to enter into Neil Gaiman’s world, as well as for his numerous fans, this is a marvelous entrance point.
Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, illustrated by Chris Malbon. (The Folio Society, 2022). 347pp., slipcased hardback. (All pictures above © Chris Malbon / Folio Society).
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