Neil Gaiman

NOTE: There are a couple of different versions of Neverwhere. The version discussed here is the author’s preferred text, which combines the original U.K. version with the American version, and also includes the short story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back”; and, despite the objections of Gaiman’s editor, it includes jokes (which the editor tried to cut because Americans are incapable of understanding humor in a book that is not intended as a comedy? idk, that seems like a weird argument to me).

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

I have to admit that I tend to be hit-or-miss with Neil Gaiman. Coraline was all right, but it didn’t blow me away. I didn’t like The Graveyard Book at all, which was a surprise, but then I loved Good Omens; but then The Ocean at the End of the Lane was another miss. Fortunately, none of that prevented me from reading Neverwhere, which has gone on to become the sort of book I would take with me to a deserted island. I have now read this book three times and listened to the Gaiman-narrated audiobook more times than I can count, and I have the BBC radio play starring Natalie Dormer and James McAvoy as well, and all in all I’m obsessed. Most of my obsession admittedly centers around the Marquis who later gets his coat back – but more on that later.

It was a day like many another, and Mr. Richard Oliver Mayhew was a perfectly ordinary man leading a perfectly ordinary life. The sort of person to whom nothing extraordinary ever happened, and not the kind of person to be the center of one of the most astounding incidents in the history of mankind. So let’s forget about him and follow instead the destiny of the Lady Door of the House of the Arch, eldest daughter of a family capable of opening doors that were never meant to be opened. That’s not a euphemism, they literally are capable of creating exits and entrances out of thin air. This has the potential to be very useful or very irritating or both, depending upon your relationship with the family: useful if you need one of them to get you away from assassins, irritating if you happen to be one of the assassins. Nevertheless, they live perfectly happily – and, it must be noted, entirely assassin-free – until the day a homicidal angel orders their extermination. Door escapes the bloodbath by chance but then spends the next several days on the run from vicious supernatural hitmen Croup and Vandemar, until she finally opens a door that dumps her on the sidewalk in front of gentle-hearted businessman Richard Mayhew.

Richard brings Door back to his flat and helps her get back on her feet despite the ire of his fiancée, but, in helping her, finds that he has become inextricably linked with a looking-glass world known to its denizens as London Below. His brief association with Door pulls him squarely into the world of London Below, with the result that he becomes invisible in his world (also called London Above). With his life in shambles, he makes his way into London Below and joins up with Door, who is now accompanied by a sardonic fixer calling himself the Marquis de Carabas and a bodyguard named Hunter, who has built her reputation by battling various monsters in the belowground versions of other cities around the world. During the course of their journey, Richard learns quite a number of things that he knows, objectively, should be impossible: there is a Floating Market whose location can only be learned from people who already know where it is, but nobody knows who first finds out where it is, or how; Blackfriars is inhabited by Black monks; there is a literal Earl in Earl’s Court; and there is a homicidal angel named Islington in – you guessed it – Islington. (For my fellow Americans: Islington has a historic landmark known as the Angel.)

About that angel: Islington is a psychopathic ex-celestial being of indeterminate gender, whose pronoun is “it,” although it is also frequently identified as “he” by Mr. Croup. It was banished to London Below after raising the waves that drowned Atlantis and theoretically was supposed to wait for forgiveness, but it has grown impatient, and has therefore taken steps to speed up the process. None of this is known by anyone in Door’s party, except for Hunter, who was secretly hired by Islington as a spy. Following a false trail laid by Messrs. Croup and Vandemar, Richard and Door meet with Islington, and agree to retrieve a key held at Blackfriars. Richard thinks the key will help him get home and Door thinks it will help her find out why her family was murdered, but it is in fact the key to Islington’s prison. Meanwhile, the Marquis de Carabas allows Croup and Vandemar to murder him, and, in death, learns about Islington’s role in the massacre of the House of the Arch. Upon his resurrection, he rejoins the others just before Hunter betrays them to Croup and Vandemar.

From there, the situation rapidly spins out of anyone’s control. Hunter dies fighting the monstrous hog living beneath London Below, whose habitat happens to fall between the group and the angel; Richard kills it following the instructions she gives him while she’s dying on the ground, and unwittingly takes Hunter’s place as the (in his case, extremely nominal) greatest hunter in London Below, complete with a knife that she bequeaths him. Despite the title and the knife, he is easily captured by Croup and Vandemar when he finally catches up with them at the angel’s lair. For a while it looks like the angel is going to win, but Door manages to open a portal to some distant corner of space, into which Islington, Croup, and Vandemar are dragged. After a much-needed recovery period, Richard uses Islington’s key to get back to his old life, only to find that it no longer fits him. He spends a desultory few weeks in London Above, unable to get back into the rhythm of the so-called real world, before trying to carve himself a doorway to London Below with the knife Hunter gave him. Somewhat surprisingly, it works: the Marquis de Carabas comes to collect him, and he returns to London Below, presumably for good. In the short story immediately following the main narrative, the Marquis spends about a week reclaiming the coat he lost during his brief death.

This is that rarest of books, the kind that I love without being able to articulate exactly why I love it. It isn’t the protagonists: I mostly like Richard, though he has an irritating habit in the beginning of loudly telling Door, the Marquis, and anyone else who happens to be within hearing range that nothing in London Below can possibly exist. You can see this shit with your own eyes, Richard. I can’t really put my finger on Door’s personality because flashing opal eyes are not a character trait, and Hunter is similarly blurry. Richard’s irate fiancée is more distinct than either of the two female leads, and that’s not good. My favorite character always ends up being the Marquis de Carabas, a sarcastic smoothie who steals my heart every goddamn time. I really didn’t like him the first time I met him, but it didn’t take long to fix that. But, more than any of the characters, I love the setting. I love this magical, unexplainable version of London running in tandem with London Above. There are so many things in this world that are never explained, because they don’t need to be. They are what they are, and that’s enough for me. And, whatever Gaiman’s editor was trying to tell him about Americans and jokes, I love the wry, mischievous humor. It fits perfectly into this world, and the book would not have been the same without it. (As for that editor, all I can say is that she’d better be American herself if she’s running around dropping judgments like that.) This is exactly the kind of book I would want to read on a cold, rainy fall night. The vibe is absolutely perfect.

But here’s the part I don’t get, and which I feel would not have suffered from a little bit of explanation: even after three readings and numerous audiobook playthroughs, I don’t really get why Islington had to kidnap Door when she walked willingly into its lair and even agreed to help it. Granted, the beans got spilled by Croup and Vandemar while they were busy torturing the Marquis, so the jig would’ve been up eventually, but she fully believed that Islington was on her side up until the literal moment Croup let slip – directly to her, not to the Marquis – that the angel was no good. I don’t know why the angel had to go through the whole thing with hiring Hunter when it could literally have just kept its mouth shut and asked Door very nicely to open its cage without ever telling her where it was going. Of course, having said that, I have to acknowledge that the angel maybe isn’t the brightest. It is impulsive and impatient, and its communications tend to give its hired hands (Croup and Vandemar) mixed messages, which is probably why it ended up hiring its own bodyguard after ordering Croup and Vandemar to do so. If it was intended as a comment on clients in general, it’s not a particularly flattering portrait. It is entirely possible that the angel just changed its mind so many times it lost track of what was most practical in favor of what seemed most expedient at the time.

Whatever the deal with the angel, this remains one of my favorite books of all time. I would read it in a box; I would read it with a fox. It is a clever, twisty masterpiece, a perfect blend of the mundane and the inexplicable. The writing is just right, the world-building so impeccable that I wish I could go back and experience it all again for the first time. I’m still waiting on somebody to build a working time machine for that one, so in the meantime I’ll just have to sit tight and see if the currently back-burnered sequel ever materializes.