My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I wanted something soft to read for the flight over the Atlantic and back. I knew I liked Gaiman’s short fiction, and I had heard good things about some of his novels. When I ducked into the library to grab a book for the trip, Neverwhere was the only Gaiman novel I could find. It had an epigram at the beginning by G. K. Chesterton, which was an encouraging sign.
As it turned out though, reading Neverwhere for me was like climbing up a hill. If it wasn’t the only book in my backpack, I would have put it down several times during the first half. It’s not that it wasn’t good. The first chapter was compelling. It’s just that it wasn’t great, and yes– I’ve gotten that picky about the novels I read. After the pleasant surreality of the first chapter, the only thing drawing the story along was how bizarre and weird London Below, the mysterious and magical realm that exists somehow beneath or beside or behind the real London, was. And London Below really wasn’t that whimsical or bizarre. It was London viewed through the lens of Chesterton, assuming that the picturesque and odd names of London Underground stops corresponded to actual, physical truths. Black Friars at Black Friars. Etcetera.
It is fun. And Gaiman is a good writer. But the strange nature of the world itself– which never really seemed to have teeth or take on a deep characterization– wasn’t enough. It reminded me very much of Mirrormask, Gaiman’s Labyrinth-like movie that I finally turned off because one bizarre and lovely scene after another just wasn’t enough to make a compelling story. Apart from that, the main character– a normal guy with a normal job and a normal fiancee, who is pulled into London Below after an act of kindness to another protagonist– spent the first half of the book whining about how weird and scary everything in London Below was and how he just wanted to go home. Not terribly endearing.
So like I said, an uphill climb. Again though, Gaiman is a good writer. The dialogue was only unbearably trite in a few places. There were a couple interesting characters, a few good, solid twists, and a fine resolution. And about halfway through, the story found its feet or I just got swept up in the momentum of it, and the second half of the book was a satisfying read. But not terrific. Not terrifying or wonder-inducing, two of the things I’ve come to expect from Gaiman. Perhaps the surreality that is Gaiman’s distinct voice comes across most effectively in short works. Or perhaps it was just because this was his first novel. And we all know the danger of evaluating an author on his first novel. (Anyone remember Wolfe’s Operation Ares?)
In sum, Neverwhere felt like an exercise, like a solid writer seeing what it was like to write a long work of fiction. There was nothing in here to make one catch one’s breath, to genuinely frighten or awe. There was much to make one smile, a bit to make one groan, and a lot to pass the time in an airport, but it’s not a book to change your life.
Unless, of course, I’m wrong and it does. Because magic sometimes works like that.