I read Neverwhere for Carl's Once Upon A Time 3 challenge (yes, I still have to do the wrap-up....). As is usual for me, I come upon authors late, and read their earlier books much later after other people often do. This has been the case with Neil Gaiman. Of all his novels, I believe American Gods was the first one I read by him! I'd read his short story collection Smoke and Mirrors while in England. They both almost made it onto my books of the year list, but not quite; American Gods was fascinating, but I felt somewhat removed from what happened to the character, and I still can't quite figure out why, since I enjoyed it very much. So when I read Neverwhere, after hearing for some time on our blogging world about how it's possibly one of his best written, I knew it was going to be good; except for the odd short story, I haven't read anything by him that I haven't really enjoyed. I wasn't prepared for how good Neverwhere is. It is possibly the best book he's written, or at least in a close tie with The Graveyard Book, which is one of those books that I keep turning over in my mind.
An aside here: the reason Smoke and Mirrors didn't make it on my list of favourite books for that year, is because by far the most effective story in it is in Neil's introduction, about the wedding gift - the letter - he gave his friends (or was going to give.) Very very creepy, but not an actual story! That one I can't get out of my head! Although I read it so long ago that I have to re-read it to see if Snow, Glass, Apples is as frightening as I remember....as a whole, short story collections don't make it onto my favourite reads for that year. I don't know why, it might have something to do with the unevenness - no short story collection is perfect, which is why Locus, the Nebula and World Fantasy awards have 'best novella' and 'best short story' categories........Although, I do here have to make a comment for Fragile Things, which I did read last year. In the confusion of being sick (I got strep throat in Nov) and going to England, I did finish Fragile Things, but it got left off my list of books read, and looking back now, it's not even on my list of favourite books of last year. Which is just wrong, because despite what I just wrote about short story collections, I think it's one of the best short story collections ever written! I'll have to create a special place for it, maybe one of those lists of 'books I've overlooked and don't know how this happened' kind......maybe a short story collection list......
Anyway, back to Neverwhere: On the post I wrote for Fantasy and Science Fiction Day three days ago, Nymeth left me a comment about Neverwhere that catches what I was attempting to say about why fantasy is relevant to our modern life. Nymeth wrote: ..."especially what you said about how fantasy creates myths for today. It reminded me of how I felt looking at the names of underground stations in London after reading Neverwhere. I know the stories are not real - and yet having them at the back of my mind makes my life a little better, a little richer, a little more mysterious. That's what myths do."
Nymeth is absolutely right. I'd just been to London at Christmas, so the Tube was fresh in my mind, as well as central London, where we spent most of our time visiting. I am in a way glad that I read Neverwhere after I was in London. Because I'm not sure I could have gone down into the Tube again. I'm pretty sure I'd be looking for doors and hidden staircases that no one else seemed to see....
Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew and how one night, he rescues a girl who is bleeding and in distress. She turns out to be the only survivor of her family, who were massacred previously. She lives in the Underworld, where Richard follows her after he is threatened by the men who are her would-be assassins. How Richard finds her, and helps her, and what he discovers on his journey underground, makes for a fabulous imagining of what London's Underground world could be like.
This book is dark and frightening and as disgusting as you would imagine life without light far in the earth to be, and it is weirdly wonderful and true and eerie, like a dark carnival. I found myself liking life underground better - there was more honesty it seemed in the life and death situations and in the rules followed, than in London Above, where Richard finds success empty if it has no meaning.
This book also reminds me about the cost of making a journey for the soul. We either take the journey and discover something precious, or we don't take it, and life half a life, where nothing is very deep. If the journey is taken, something is always lost, or has to be given up, by the hero at the end, even if it is the lie that was the previous life, or love that didn't last, or the future only half dreamt of. I know which I prefer. Neverwhere is a powerful work of fantasy. Like Coraline, it brings you through to the other side safely. It's a very dark trip, but one well worth taking.
I've already lent the book to one of my friends to read. It's one of my favourite books of this year.
I do have to say though, I still prefer to see London by double-decker red bus!