In Banned, we review books on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged young adult novels, banned books. The intended audience for all books is “young adult”, typically defined to include ages 12-18. We review them because challenging ideas are the heart of democracy and diversity, because even harmful perspectives should be discussed so that they may be challenged with understanding, and because we believe that reading can make us all more capable of compassion. These reviews are not endorsements, and whether you read the book addressed herein is your decision.
“There was no moon, but the night sky was a riot of crisp and glittering autumn stars. There were street lights too, and lights on buildings and on bridges, which looked like earth-bound stars, and they glimmered, repeated, as they were reflected with the city in the night water of the Thames. It’s fairyland, thought Richard.” – Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
I first read Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman several years ago, long enough ago that the details had faded from my mind, leaving only a sense of place. A rat, crouched at the edge of a bubble of light, black eyes glittering in the candlelight. A collection of toy plastic trolls, lined up on a computer monitor. A manhole cover, a pit that went on forever, and a sense of falling into a place both unknown and absurdly familiar.
It’s a testament to Gaiman’s incredible writing that Neverwhere the place continued to live in my mind long after the book’s characters had grown murky, but I must say it was a pleasure to reunite with the heroes of London Below after so many years. But I’m getting ahead of myself, I should introduce you to them. Internet, this is Door. She has a magical power that lets her open any door. Her bodyguard is named Hunter. Hunter is a hunter. Yes, they both have very creative names. (Although neither of them beat Neal Stephenson’s narrator Hiro Protagonist, but that’s a story for another day.) Their companions are the Marquis de Carabas, a lovable trickster and charming rogue, and Richard Mayhew, a perfectly normal accountant. How did these four end up together? I’ll let you hear it in Richard’s own words.
“Richard wrote a diary entry in his head. Dear diary, he began. On Friday I had a job, a fiancee, a home, and a life that made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense.) Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement, and I tried to be a Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiancee, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal mayfly.“
If it wasn’t clear from that passage, Richard might be having some regrets at this point. Normal was very much in his comfort zone, and saving an outcast convinced that going to a hospital would kill her more surely than a blade very much isn’t. Unfortunately for Richard, Door brought two pieces of her world with her: Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. Dear reader, I won’t do you the disservice of introducing you to Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. Suffice it to say that they have been paid rather a lot of money to kill Door, slowly, and they seem to be looking forward to it.
Regardless of what a dark beginning that may seem, Neil Gaiman actually wrote this book to be a modern fairy tale, and oh did he succeed. Neverwhere is a story as reflective of the twisting, terrifying machine of a modern city as Hansel and Gretel is of a medieval European forest. The “real” world, as Gaiman tells it, is London Above, the tip of the iceberg to the world beneath: London Below. Door is his literary cheat, the girl who can open any lock, the reader’s guide to the hidden places that are normally forbidden.
Having read Neverwhere and some of Gaiman’s other books, particularly Anansi Boys, there’s no doubt in my mind that Gaiman has a particular fondness for the city of London and all it’s winding streets, verbose cabbies, and profoundly human absurdities. But it’s a guilty affection, one born of the knowledge that as surely as the “real” London will be forever closed to tourists, there are parts of his city that a famous author with a home to return to and a guarantee of a warm meal three times a day will never know or understand. And as much as Neverwhere is a story of London, there’s a thread of fear in it, a fear of that unknown. Gaiman conjures the locked doors, the manhole covers, the rooftops, the abandoned buildings, the exiles of urban desolation, the edges of the world. Beyond the lines is dangerous for its mystery, what the Vikings would have labeled “Here, there be dragons.” And just as a storyteller by the fire instills a bone deep terror of what waits in the woods, Neverwhere rides that fear, the fear of a city dweller who wonders sometimes what, or who, might be living out of sight, beyond the edges of normal.
Yet unlike its fairy tale ancestors, Neverwhere does something remarkable: it turns that fear into wonder, weaving a tale as breathless and enchanting as the world itself. Gaiman is so often an epic writer, a creature of tales that span millennia, wars that outlast gods, and the true nature of nations. But while London Below is an epic world, to be sure, a vast and breathing one, unlike some of Gaiman’s other work Neverwhere reads more like a fantastical Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than an ancient ballad. The Marquis de Carabas is a natural Ford Prefect, all humor, wanderlust, and unearned confidence, and Richard, forever befuddled and in search of a good cup of tea, could be Arthur Dent’s twin.
And because of those characters, and many more, it’s in the quiet moments that Neverwhere really shines. Whether it’s Anaesthesia and Richard gazing at the stars together by the Thames, or Richard and Door dancing, quite drunk, on the steps of the British museum, just because they can, or the pure joy of Door and Hammersmith’s reunion, these characters feel real, and in their reality they bring a world to life.
Neverwhere draws you in with those characters, inviting you beyond the edge of sanity, and then like the Hitchhiker’s Guide it uses the surreal to draw out the absurdity of real life. It’s a tale that says: “Look here, see the world. Now look again. What are you missing? What do you refuse to see?” That’s why Neverwhere is really banned, I think. Because in Gaiman’s fairy tale there is no rabbit hole, no magical portal between London Above and London Below. The real world is mad, beautiful too, and magic was always there, waiting for anyone willing to look, suffusing both the epic moments and the powerfully mundane.
It’s a book that says there is no linear way to live, no winning and losing, no superior and inferior, only hope, and even in the face of unspeakable tragedy these heroes of Neverwhere have chosen hope. They’ve chosen to live in a place called London Below, where magic is real and a feather from a friend matters more than a promotion. They’ve chosen to hope for a world that is better than what it seems, chosen to hope, as Richard says, that normal isn’t all there is. That’s a powerful message, and a dangerous one, and I think this time it will stay with me for a long time yet.