I read Neverwhere for the first time more years ago than I care to mention. This new edition, illustrated by Chris Riddell, caught my eye, and I decided it was time to revisit an old favourite.
First, a word about the pictures. I like Chris Riddell’s pictures and think they particularly suit the quirky, grimy characters one encounters in this story. I liked the many pages that appear ‘doodled’ upon, as though he has jotted down the pictures in his head while reading. Riddell’s designs are cartoons that capture the essence of a character or a moment.
The story is probably my favourite book about London. Gaiman seems to capture the grit of Dickens with the magic of Mary Poppins. (In the P.L. Travers stories rather than the Disney version.) Richard, the central character, moves from Scotland to an office job in the City of London. His life follows a predictable pattern of work and romance until he encounters a bleeding girl called Door on the pavement and he picks her up and takes her to his flat. Door is part of a different London, London Below where the people live who have fallen through the cracks. London Below is a dark world full of filth and at the same time strangely magical. Gaiman invents places such as the Floating Market which moves from place to place and has fantastical stalls selling nightmares as well as prosaic choices between curry or sausages for dinner. London Below is not safe for Richard, or for anyone else. Richard joins with Door as she searches to find the person or creature behind the murder of her family as he tries to find his way back to London Above. Door’s companions are Hunter and the Marquis de Carabas. The Marquis has to be one of Gaiman’s most entertaining characters, witty, charming, dangerous and the wearer of the finest coat.
The story is a quest as the companions face different obstacles and an actual ordeal to reach their goal. Gaiman plays with the place names of London, recalling their original meaning with the Blackfriars and imagining their literal truth with Down Street. Anyone who reads this will never hear ‘Mind the gap’ on the Tube in quite the same way again. In the tradition of the best writers about London, Gaiman conveys a sense of excitement and mystery about the Capital, a place you never really know and just enough magic to make you question if there is another London beneath the cracks.
Reading ‘Neverwhere’ this time made me a little reminiscent of London in the past. London now is much cleaner and neater than it was at the end of the twentieth century, though I’m sure the people who fall through the cracks meet a harsh fate in the real world. Then I realised that this is part of the story’s gift, and indeed all good London stories, they make the reader desire the London of their imagination, the one that is just out of reach, perhaps where gold does pave the streets.