In North America we take pride in our cities that date back to our original days of settlement and think of them as old and historic. So it's a little bit of a blow to the ego when you discover that a city like London England has sewer systems that predate even our oldest European settlements.
In other parts of the world cities older then our oldest have grown up on top of the ruins of even older settlements that exist entirely below the sub-basement levels of the newer structures. Ancient houses stand empty, vainly awaiting the return of inhabitants and streets and avenues are equally devoid of the traffic that once filled them. Forever cut off from the sun, rain, and other elements, they are the empty shells of lost civilizations.
But are they really as empty as we believe? Could it be possible that beneath our feet as we go about our daily business a whole other city carries out its affairs without our noticing? Well according to Neil Gaiman in his novel Neverwhere published by Harper Perennial, it's not a possibility but a reality. In the catacombs, sewers and abandoned subway lines that exist beneath London, England, a separate world not only exists but thrives.
Richard Mayhew is a recent immigrant whose head is still slightly spinning from his transportation to the big city from rural Scotland. It hasn't helped matters that he's been chosen for the role of fiancée and husband-to-be by a very ambitious and beautiful young women who seeks to mould him into a shape in which he is best suited to achieve what she sees as his potential.
Given those circumstances, and his overall feelings of disorientation; of not quite being in step with those around him, what happens is to only be expected. While rushing to a dinner engagement with his betrothed they stumble over an injured girl's body on the sidewalk. When she pleads for Richard not to call an ambulance he decides to take her to his apartment instead. This one compassionate act irrevocably changes his world.
Through the mysterious Lady Door, Richard is introduced to the second, and lower, strata of London life. In the short time it takes her to recuperate he learns about communicating with rats and pigeons, that mysterious passages exist between the two worlds that have no relation to time and space, and that if lower London has elements of the fantastical it also has its share of the horrible.
But his worst shock comes when he finds that when he attempts to continue on with his normal existence in the days following his encounter with Lady Door and her associates he seems to have become invisible, or perhaps beneath notice. Like the homeless person huddled in the doorway we avert our eyes from or stare through unseeing, Richard had become a non-entity.
As his desperation grows to be seen and recognized he realizes that his only hope of getting his life back is finding the Lady Door. With the assistance of a group of Rat Speakers, people who can speak to the rats, he is guided to where he had heard Lady Door say she was going to be next.
In many cultures, and many old tales, a person must make a metaphorical journey into the underworld or the dark to come to an understanding of themselves. Richard Mayhew's travels through the underworld of the city of London are his equivalent of that quest. Whether he knows it or not his travels to assist the Lady Door in her search to find those who killed her family will give him a sense of self that he was lacking previously.
Unlike others who attempt to write in the urban fantasy genre, Neil Gaiman imbues Neverwhere with a feeling of whimsy that makes even it's darker moments less intolerable. It's like we are Richard Mayhew for most of the book and feeling his wonder at the novelty of the whole experience. Even the sheer terror of having to deal with his fear of heights and overcoming them becomes something to revel in only because it gives him the feeling of being truly alive for the first time.
As usual Gaiman proves himself a master at creating the weird and wondrous, with characters ranging from the benign to the stunningly evil. Each one is treated to the same luxuriant treatment of being drawn with words that describe them in careful detail, while still allowing a good number to their traits to come out through their actions and conversation.
Perhaps it is because Gaiman is used to writing in a way where it is easy for someone to illustrate his stories, but each and every description he offers us of a new local easily brought forth an image in my mind of what it should look like. In fact the whole time I was reading Neverwhere, I was able to gradually piece together a picture in my head of the entire world that the story was taking place in.
To my mind what really proves Gaiman's effectiveness as an author in these pages is how easy he makes it to believe in the existence of this other world beneath our feet. Where do the people go who have slipped between the cracks in our society? On a daily basis the majority of people walking the streets of a city do a remarkable job of not recognising the presence of others who look different than they do.
Adding to the believability of the situation is his refusal to romanticize the people or the circumstances. Some of the people stink and do disgusting things to make a living like fishing through the outflow pipes of the sewers looking for "treasures" that could be anything from a used cell phone to a dead body.
It's no paradise below the surface where those not wanted by our society have a life of ease and plenty. There is starvation, famine, and crime down there just as much as there is above ground. But at least here they all exist and are seen and heard. They all have a sense of identity aside from the one given them by the society that had labelled them simply, homeless, drunk, or crazy.
Richard Mayhew hadn't been one of those unfortunates, but he was still lacking in identity before his journey, allowing himself to be defined by the people around him instead of working to create himself. We all crave identity, and as Richard discovers when you are no longer given recognitions status unless you are very self-assured and aware, you are very quickly lost.
The homeless, the eccentric, and the odd are all designated by our brains as "not there", if they aren't there on the streets and the sidewalks of our city, where are they? Neverwhere postulates that they have created their own world, where even if they aren't physically much better off, at least here they have a purpose and an identity.
Neverwhere is a wonderful adventure story about a journey through a vast underground world full of wonders and horrors. It is also about the same journey we each can choose to make through our own world of wonder and horrors that lies within us. Enjoy it for the story, and think about it for yourself.