Sunday, 28 December 2008


Neil Gaiman

Like Wrath of a Mad God this is fantasy too: but this is a completely different proposition. This is good, very, very good. Good enough that I will recommend this to non-fantasy reading friends. Ahhh... A breakout hit - the dream of fantasy authors the world over. Well, here's a tip: instead of sucking, try writing high quality, original, funny and genuninely moving stories, like, say, this.

The poignancy. It's not cloying, there's no preaching. Not even any condescension, patronisation or pity. This is a tale of those who fall through the cracks. Those you don't notice around you; the other nation outside, in the words of Billy Bragg, sleeping in the street. A tale of the disenfranchised, the dispossessed. told so well. So clearly, so directly, with no pathetic efforts to tug at the heart strings that, for me, this became the most moving story since Greene's The Quiet American.

But it's fantasy. How can a fantasy novel seriously be mentioned in the same breath as Graham Greene? Well, I'm going to have to try to justify that. On the surface, and the back cover, Neverwhere is a fantasy adventure set in a strange, fantastical world at once beneath and entwined within everyday London. This world intersects with London through the streets and the homeless. Richard Mayhew is pulled from our world into this other place. Forced onto a quest all he really wants is to be able to return home.

Viewed as a fantasy creation, this other world is a joy. Full of magic, grand quests and the most imaginative etymologies for major London landmarks: I certainly wished I knew London better. To get the right feeling I was able to transplant Sydney in place of London. Enough wandering in the City, Surry Hills, Pyrmont and Balmain and you have the feeling that there is history, and history on history here. And beyond that, it's dark. Frighteningly, unexpectedly dark.

Like Midnight's Children though, I read Neverwhere in two ways. As well as the straight forward fantasy interpretation, you could also see this as a story told by an unreliable narrator. What if the weird, fantastical world beneath London's streets doesn't exist? I mean, not even within the world of the book? What if that entire world is inside of Richard Mayhew's mind and he just doesn't know it? And for me, that possibility made this a touching, poignant story. A story genuinely of those who fall through the cracks; into a world that is both magical, frightening and very dangerous.

Unfortunately, to make you believe I'll have to cite specifics. Without spoiling, I'd point at the third quest for the Blackfriars. When you read that scene think about alternate explanations.

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