Back when my hometown still had used bookstores, I remember picking out a fantasy novel with an intriguing title and a somewhat familiar author blazing across a cool two page cover - the front page is a two-tone scene with the top displaying a green hued city and below a black bar bearing the title is a sepia picture of a tunnel with the opening cut out to reveal a purple image of the torch lined tunnel on the interior page.  The author's name on the top read "National Bestseller Neil Gaiman" and when I first picked up the novel, the name struck a chord in my memory from a series of graphic novels I read in late high school and college. And across the black bar at the center of the cover lie ten letters in white font reading "Neverwhere".

The story is an urban fantasy of a man named Richard Mayhew who, after stopping to help an injured girl on the street, is pulled into an alternate reality in the world of London Below.  Gaiman's premise is built on the idea that many people in the ordinary London (London Above) have slipped through the cracks into London Below, an underworld of magic and mystery.  Here people can speak to rodents and pigeons and the various London Tube stations have identities of their own: there is an Earl in Earl's Court and there are Friars in Blackfriar's Station.  Richard's fate and chance of survival in London Below comes to depend on the girl he helped, a young woman named Door whose family has been killed, and her companions the Marquis de Carabas and the fierce warrior named Hunter.  Pursuing them all are the villains Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar - hitmen, who are not quite men, with an unknown employer.  And then there's the Beast of London.

I don't want to give too much away about this book, but I will say it's one of my all time favorite novels and the one which first enamored me to Neil Gaiman as a writer (I like his graphic novels, but I love his prose).  Early in chapter one, Gaiman introduces two main characters with the following passage:

"There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar's eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry.  Also, they look nothing at all alike."
~Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere p. 7

If that passage incites nothing more than a shoulder shrug from you, I'd recommend not bothering with Gaiman's work.  But if you're like me, you find it highly entertaining.  From the opening words, the reader imagines Gaiman is about to describe slight differences between the individuals.  He continues with some brilliant descriptive writing, revealing both physical and character traits, and closes the paragraph by completely overturning the reader's original perception.  And all of this is done amid a somewhat fearful and suspenseful chapter.  The juxtaposition of humor and darkness is something of a signature in Gaiman's work and I think this passage is a good snapshot of what much of his work contains. 

I read this book years ago, and I'm sure some people are wondering: why blog about it now? 

This weekend I had the opportunity to see a stage production of Neverwhere at Chicago's Lifeline Theatre.  Adapted for stage by Rob Kazlauric (who also takes on the role of Richard with a very believable Scottish accent) and directed by Paul Holmquist, the show follows the novel quite closely and does a wonderful job capturing the humor, adventure and excitement of the story.  The cast was magnificent and each character seemed to have walked right from the pages of Gaiman's work.  The sets, sound, lighting, music, makeup, costumes, puppets, and props were all pulled together with fabulous details, and the love of the source material was evident in every aspect of the production.  For those in the Chicagoland area - or those looking for a reason to take a Windy City vacation - I highly recommend seeing Neverwhere.  The show has been extended to July 18th, but tickets have been selling out, so if you're debating, don't delay.  I should note too that I really liked Lifeline Theatre as well.  They are a venue that specializes in literary adaptations and I'm a little ashamed to admit that this was my first visit - however, as their new season advertises The Moonstone and Watership Down, I certainly plan on returning!

6 Response to "Neverwhere"

  1. Ellen aka Ellie says:
    June 14, 2010 at 6:38 AM

    Is a "meh," the same as a shoulder shrug?

    All teasing aside, I am blown away by the broad variety of what you read and enjoy! I'm working to broaden my tastes, but I'm comfy in Ellen's library...

  2. Jennifer Perry says:
    June 14, 2010 at 10:05 AM

    This was the first Gaiman I read, a loved it. Was not aware of the stage version but very curious.
    Jennifer Perry

  3. Anonymous Says:
    June 25, 2010 at 4:21 PM

    Lovely review. I have always wanted to read this one. It's on my TBR list over on Goodreads.

  4. Rachel says:
    June 25, 2010 at 9:30 PM

    I absolutely love love this book. Have you ever seen the BBC series? Gaiman originally wrote it for the BBC, however he was unhappy with the show. I am glad he decided to share the novel, great review! I'm following!

  5. lisa :) says:
    June 25, 2010 at 10:30 PM

    I have seen the BBC series but I did like the book better. I saw Neil Gaiman last year and during a reading he described the novel as the "director's cut" of the series. I thought it was an apt analogy. Also, I don't know if you're anywhere near Chicago, but the play really was wonderful. Interestingly enough I went to see it on a Saturday night and Neil Gaiman showed up the next day. Had we gone for the Sunday show we would likely have gotten to meet him!

  6. Captain Nick Sparrow says:
    June 30, 2010 at 5:40 PM

    I read my first Neil Gaiman book last year and this one sounds good too!

    I like how you tie your book reviews into your life on your blog.

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