Sunday, 28 June 2009

Sunday Salon - Neverwhere , fantasy at its best

The Sunday Salon.com

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....

Also, ever since the film An American Werewolf in London 20 years ago, I've never been able to be really comfortable in London's Tube. Plus, I hate being underground anyway. Even if it's a great way to get around London - and it is - I want fresh air and to know that at anytime, I can get away if I have to. Always now in the back of my mind is the memory of July 2005, and the bombings on the Tube . So, with all this already in my mind, already predisposed to think the Underground as fairly creepy, I opened Neverwhere.



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.

Gaiman has held back nothing in creating this underworld, 'London Below Ground'. There are references to myths and fairy tales, there are monsters, evil characters and heroes. All set in a world just a little below where we live. This is real fantasy. I particularly like that Gaiman holds nothing back - one character dies, that had me yelling out "no!" and crying, in a horrific scene that is among the worst nightmare voyages across a bridge that I have ever read. There is betrayal, some satisfying - what happens to the two assassins is particulary fun to read, if graphic! - and some astonishing. I want to go to that moving market, even if it is scary and nightmarish, it still looks fun! And I really want another story with Door. I think she is the best female character he has created so far, with the exception of Coraline. I liked Door. I didn't like Richard at the beginning - I really wanted him to get a spine, the way his fiancee pushed him around! - but by the end, I did. I understood his decision, even as it feels like a loss to the world. And it is.

The power of Neverwhere is that even though Richard becomes an outcast as we would describe it 'Above World', he really finds himself in the underworld. It is a very accurate retelling of the Hero's Journey as Campbell describes it in A Hero With A Thousand Faces, except the message Richard would bring back, about this alternate society below ground, is completely unaccepted and unacceptable to the real world. No one wants to know there is a whole society underground. So all the things Richard learns about himself, all the strengths and skills he acquires, the position he attains, can't be brought out into the real world. It is an unfinished journey for the world, but for Richard his journey is done, and in the end he has to choose where he lives.

Now when I think of London's Underground, as well as all the layers I previously mentioned colouring how I see it, I have Neverwhere transfiguring it. All the way through the book, as Nymeth says, I looked at the names of the Underground stations used in the book, and I remembered what they were really like when I last saw them, and then superimposed Neverwhere's version of the Tube. *shiver* This is what really good urban fantasy does. It reimagines our landscape, using fairy tales, myths, shadows, and 'what if's' to show the landscape in a different light. Pure magic.

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!

16 comments:

Memory said...

NEVERWHERE is one of my favourite Gaimans, too. (Which isn't really saying much, because all of his novels are "one of my favourite Gaimans.") And I absolutely agree with you about short story collections: I often put them on my yearly long lists, but they never make it into the top spots because they're almost always uneven.

Gavin said...

Susan - Thank you for this review. I got discouraged with Gaiman's novels a while back but then read The Graveyard Book and just loved it. I will add Neverwhere to my list.

Chris said...

So glad to hear you enjoyed this one!! Though my favorite is American Gods, I can certainly see why this is your favorite. It's a very close second for me. I suspect that if I had ever been to England, this one just may become my favorite ;) It's so good to read your posts again!!! I missed everyone so damn much while my computer was gone!!!

Literary Feline said...

American Gods was my first Neil Gaiman book too. The only other one I've read so far is Stardust. I hope to make my way through most of his other books eventually.

It is amazing how much fiction, fantasy included, impacts our perceptions and world view. Even in the smallest of ways. I love stepping into a fantasy world. And when a novel follows me even when I'm not reading . . . Even better. It sounds like Neverwhere is one of those books.

This was a wonderful review, Susan! You've got me wanting to pick this one up soon!

DesLily said...

First off.. someone has been redecorating your blog! you would think the color would be the first giveaway but it was the fact that I didn't see your picture on the left side of my screen! lol.. I do like the new look though..

I'm not the Gaimen fan everyone else is, although I did read Stardust and enjoyed it and have the Gravyard book waiting for Carls RIP challenge. I don't know why I am not a big fan of his writing.. I just don't feel immediately whisked away and I don't always feel i can relate to many of the characters.. it's odd I know but it's just how it is i guess.

Bookwormom said...

What a lovely review. I think that of the Gaimans I've read, Good Omens and American Gods are my favorites. I liked Neverwhere, but it hasn't stuck in my mind as strongly as the others. Perhaps I shall have to reread it & see. :)

~Amanda

Rhinoa said...

You think the tube is bad in the winter? Try now when the weather is all humid and sticky. There is no air conditioning down there it's horrible and smelly eww. I'm glad you enjoyed this and you should definitely try Un Lun Dun by China Meiville as well as I think Valient by Holly Black. I love this and American Gods and am looking forward to getting around to Good Omens hopefully before the end of the year.

Debi said...

I'm a late comer to Neil Gaiman, too. Actually I read Coraline years ago, before I blogged, but at that time I had never really heard of Neil Gaiman and had no idea he wrote "adult" books. Anyway, I haven't read Neverwhere yet. And I'm not sure why. But honestly, I can't see any of his books pushing American Gods out of my favorite slot. That is one of my all-time favorite books by anyone. But you know, I'd love to be pleasantly surprised...and god knows, he's certainly talented enough to do it!

Susan said...

Memory: all his books are so different from anything else that's been done, aren't they? so they're like a category all their own anyway.

Gavin: The Graveyard Book is good, isn't it? I hope you do enjoy Neverwhere - it is different from Graveyard Book, though! Very!

Chris: I missed you! It's awful to have computer problems, isn't it? I know whenever we've had problems, I can't go very long before I really start missing my internet, and now bloggers.....I'm very very happy you're back!!

Literary Feline: Oh good, I'm glad you're going to give Neverwhere a try! It really was one I'd missed reading, and a blogger mentioned on one of their posts how much they enjoyed it and recommended it....you know how it is.....and I thought, ok, I'll try it. If you've been to London, or been on an underground metro train, then this book will hit home in a visceral way. If you haven't, I don't think it matters since the book is so well imagined. It's just for me I'd been above ground as well as below London, so I could picture everything while I was reading it.

thanks, Wendy, and I really hope you enjoy it!

Deslily: I have been trying for ages to get three columns! You don't want to know how long it took me to do this on Sunday! I had a celebratory ice cream (low-fat now!) afterwards!! lol thanks :-D for the compliment!

As for Neil's books, I know what you mean by not being able to relate to some of the characters. American Gods was good, but that was one of the problems, as I said in the post, I had with it too. I think you'll find Graveyard Book a little different. I still think Coraline is one of the best he's ever done, though. I'd read that before anything, because it is so good (at least for me it is!) and sometimes you and I share book tastes!!

Bookwormom: I was thinking that while I was writing my post. Isn't that the surprising thing about authors, and novels, that we can all enjoy the same author, and all pick a different book from his oeuvre that is our favourite?

Rhinoa: I've been on the Tube in the summer! Ugh!! eww is right.....I have Un Lun Dun to read sometime this year (it's actually on the TBR shelf!!), I just didn't get to it for Carl's Challenge. I haven't seen that Holly Black book, on my list it goes. Thanks!!!

Debi: see my comment above to Literary Feline. I missed reading it too. One of the fun things (among many, many!) about book blogs is that they can bring our attention to books we've missed...yikes, that sounds all preachy and stuffy! and we're already converted! but I think it's true, I would have gotten to Neverwhere eventually, but reading someone I trust who liked it, brought it up in my attention sooner. Plus, the fact it was set in the Tube....I like to read almost anything with London in it!

So you're an American Gods fan. Many people are! I'd have to say Coraline is my #1 book by him. It's brilliant. And dark, very dark. I like that! lol

Book pusher said...

What a great post! I am also a fan of Gaiman, and your comments on the Underground were very interesting. I had read Neverwhere not that long before a trip to London, a few months before the bombings. Two things happened every time we used the tube, one, it made me think of Neverwhere and it's fantastic landscape everytime, and secondly, this is a target waiting to happen.
I do love the way Gaiman transforms the everday into the fantastic.
Also, know what you mean about coming to authors late, I seem to do that a lot, so many good books and just not enough hours in the day.

Daphne said...

Of course each Gaiman is different and I loved them for different reasons (one of the things I love about his books). I think Neverwhere was one of my first books (perhaps after Coraline and Good Omens) and I loved it!! I loved the characters and imagery, and thought it was just amazing. I want to see the movie/series that was produced a few years ago...

Susan said...

Book-pusher: I came to your wonderful site, thanks so much for leaving a comment here so I could find you! you're already added to by blog-roll. I love that Dr Who quote!!!

Daphne: Yes, that is one of the many wonderful things about books and authors, as I was saying to some of my other commentators -an author can write many equally good books, but that are different in many ways, and each will appeal to different people. I'm glad to see how many love Neverwhere too!! You're right, I forgot there was a tv series.... I might try to find it on you tube. good idea!

Nymeth said...

You know, I actually hadn't realized you were reading/had just read Neverwhere when I left you that comment! Talk about timing. Anyway, I'm glad (and not at all surprised) to hear you enjoyed it so much. I love how you compared it to a dark carnival - that is exactly right.

Susan said...

Timing is right! lol! Now about that Mythopoeic challenge.... :-D I'll email you.

Susan said...

Nymeth, that last comment was to you!

Kim L said...

I'm glad you liked this one so much! Of all the Gaiman books, I actually connected to this one less than the others... not sure why or what it was. So it is really interesting to hear from someone who considers it their favorite! I can totally see what you enjoyed about it.