Source of book: Audiobook from the library
My kids love the Neil Gaiman we have listened to previously. Which is to say, my kids love creepy stories, and have a high tolerance for horror. Here are our previous Gaiman selections:
One thing I should mention at the outset about Neverwhere, is that, unlike the others, Neverwhere isn’t really a kids book. (Arguably, Good Omens isn’t either. But that book is less terrifying and more humorous, because Terry Pratchett…) That means that it contains some pretty scary and violent moments - little kids will probably have an issue here. And also a fair share of garden-variety vulgarity and profanity. Your approach to this sort of stuff with your kids may vary from mine. (For what it is worth, I am bothered much more by racial slurs, which you find readily in older literature - including children’s literature - than by crass references to bodily functions, extremely hot punishment, and how you get there.) There are also some non-graphic sexual references (the main character is definitely having sex with his fiancee.)
What Neverwhere is, however, is Gaiman’s first real novel (he started with graphic novels), which he based on a TV series he also wrote. The characters are the same, but the story is expanded. It is more or less in the horror genre, and certainly shows all the typical themes that Gaiman continues to work with. Realism with a supernatural element (not exactly magical realism, but a close cousin), lonely and isolated characters, a hidden world hiding in plain sight alongside the “real” one, and a generally Gothic and macabre vibe.
In an opening that O Henry would approve, young businessman Richard Mayhew is running late to a dinner with his fiancee and her famous boss, when a girl appears on the sidewalk, bleeding badly, and asking for help - and that the police not be called. To the horror and disapproval of his fiancee - and against his better judgment - he takes the girl, who calls herself “Door,” back to his apartment. Soon after, two rather Victorian gentlemen gangster sorts calling themselves Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar show up, and attempt to shake him down for the girl. And then things start to get really weird really fast.
First, Richard must summon a mysterious figure, the Marquis de Carabas, who takes Door with him as they both vanish. Then, Richard discovers that he apparently no longer exists. Nobody remembers him, and his flat is being rented to strangers. He has to find his way to “London Underground” to find Door and try to get his life back. Once there, he finds he is caught up in running from a plot to murder Door (having dispatched her family already), which appears to involve very powerful and mysterious forces. Richard, the Marquis, Door, and a badass female bodyguard, Hunter, set out on the quest for the truth and safety.
This being Gaiman, naturally, assassins figure prominently. And nobody is quite who they seem. Along the way, there are a bunch of memorable, fascinating characters that inhabit an equally imaginative world. Gaiman also combines, as usual, suspenseful plotting with good characterization (within the confines of the genre), and solid writing. There is plenty of social satire as well. The Western financial world gets skewered, as do upwardly mobile sorts who grasp at wealth and prestige. London Underground consists of all the people who fall between the cracks, and Gaiman makes them sympathetic and human - if thoroughly rough and tumble. Richard’s experience is that of falling through the cracks – becoming invisible to society. It happens to him – and could happen to us – more easily than we think.
This book is also a confirmation of the axiom that Neil Gaiman should always narrate his own audiobooks. His smooth and slightly sinister voice fits his writing perfectly.
As I noted above, unless you have kids like mine, probably be cautious. The violence is pretty nasty, the language might be an issue, and it is a scary book. On the other hand, for teens who like terror, Gaiman’s writing is above average, and his books have a certain moral heft to them which transcends the genres he writes in. We have really enjoyed them over the last few years.
Illustration by Chris Riddell. Richard and the Marquis
Croup and Vandemar.