Neil Gaiman has this uncanny ability to take something you thought you knew like the palm of your hand and twist it, distort it from something as mundane and normal as the daily commute into London and warp it into something brand new and utterly phantasmagorical. A story, seemingly about one man’s experience relocating to the bustling city of London, quickly takes a turn which implores the reader to look between the lines of everyday life, beyond what they think they know and beyond the realms of their comfort zone, and consider what the reality of existence is for those who have ‘fallen through the cracks’. This is a recurring theme of the novel and a mechanism Gaiman implements throughout the story which serves to constantly torment its audience. How are we to know that Gaiman’s fantasy world does not, infact, exist? Only logic and reason stand between us and the belief that London Below really is a vibrant metropolis, just a few paces downwards, underneath our feet, every time we venture into the capital. After all, the subjects of the novel, those commuters who – not unlike you and I – frequent the London tube network often on their way to work or to events or to meet friends and are unashamedly unaware and blissfully ignorant of anything else that may exist outside of their narrow perception of reality – and quite comfortable never to question it. But London Below is home to magical phenomena at every turn; angels, wolf-like humanoid predators, a family who possess the ability to open even the most tightly sealed doors at a touch, reanimation after death and a whole list of events, people and places which defy what we know to be impossible. Of course we don’t believe it; of course it is merely the creative whim of a writer’s imagination. And yet, despite this obvious fact, Gaiman’s prose in Neverwhere rarely assumes the readers ignorance and is so deeply inventive and complete that it reads like a memoir of events, a statement of truth which Gaiman has personally been privy to and is simply relaying onto an unassuming audience, rather than a novel of pure fiction, born of a brilliantly demented mind.
For those that live and/or work in London, and particularly those that find themselves lost in a book on the tube en route to their destination, the story carries a much more impactful weight to it. References to prominent landmarks, renowned locations and busy tube stations will betray you into a sense of comfort, the perception that you are at an advantage simply for being familiar with the many places which the story follows its central characters – before pulling the carpet from under you and forcing you to reimagine a world you thought you knew.
Gaiman’s characters are never one, nor two, nor three dimensional. Instead they come to life on the page as real and living beings whom, no matter how well you think you know them, possess the mercurial yet entirely believable qualities of humanity. You may assume to be safe in the knowledge that one character is ‘good’ and the other is ‘bad’, that one is smart and reliable while the other is ignorant and stupid, but the characters in Neverwhere aren’t so conveniently transparent, they cannot be read nor predicted. However their actions nonetheless do not appear out of place, and the moments which will have you wide-eyed and slack-jawed in disbelief do not achieve this by being entirely unbelievable but by intelligently catching you off guard. It is a primary example of original and organic storytelling which feels refreshing and captivating.
The novel commits to and ultimately owns a number of recurring themes; the unknown, ignorance, love, trust, friendship, suffering and, perhaps the most prominent– sacrifice. The only piece of advice for one looking to immerse themselves in Gaiman’s storytelling prowess in Neverwhere is this; nothing is sacred, nothing is what it seems. And prepare to have your world turned upside-down. Happy reading!