“Have you ever got everything you ever wanted? And then realized it wasn’t what you wanted at all? I thought I wanted this,” said Richard. “I thought I wanted a nice normal life. I mean, maybe I am crazy. I mean, maybe. But if this is all there is, then I don’t want to be sane. You know?”
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
Neverwhere opens on the most boring protagonist imaginable. He works in finance in an office in London. He is entirely unromantic. He got engaged to a woman who chose him for his malleability. His problems are the sort of problems that only qualify as disasters in sitcoms. He is, on the whole, entirely normal. This is first reason I give this book my recommendation.
Richard Mayhew’s one act out of character, of course, changes his life and plunges him into immense disaster, a world he could not dream of, yada yada yada. What sets him apart, however, is how unrelentingly normal he continues to remain even as he goes on quests he can’t understand and is chased by horrors he couldn’t imagine. He isn’t even, really, the hero of the story. That title goes to a young girl named Door who fills all of the hero tropes that one expects in a fantasy novel.
Which leads to my second reason for recommending this book. The moral of this novel–if moral it could be called–is how very dangerous it is to trust to tropes–to common knowledge. Richard succeeds in a few important things solely because he is aware of the sheer incongruity of his surroundings. Even after he accepts the existence of the world he inhabits, he retains his assumptions from the normal world:
“Somehow, this was one oddity too many. He could accept “Mind the Gap” and the Earl’s Court, and even the strange library. But damn it, like all Londoners, he knew his Tube map, and this was going too far. “There isn’t a British Museum Station,” said Richard, firmly.”
While acknowledging the truths that are hallmarks of fairy stories and fantasy–labyrinths hold monsters; beautiful women who walk by night in velvet are dangerous; those who claim noble titles without histories are untrustworthy–it moves beyond them, filling out the edges of these two dimensional ideas and bringing them to life.
And this is my final reason to recommend this book: it deals with reality. The things that really matter, as it were.
I spent a good twenty minutes trying to explain what exactly this meant, before deciding that words failed. A quote would explain it best:
“Metaphors failed him, then. He had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.”
One of my teachers once told me that having more than five three-dimensional characters in a novel meant that the plot would suffer. Gaiman seems not to care about this rule: the plot twists are always that people have their own motivations and secret lives–that no-0ne is reducible to “an evil seductress” or “a rogue” or “a blacksmith with a heart of gold.” This does not make his moral lines blur, however; the evil is all the more horrific for its less-evil motivations, and the good shines through in spite of less-than-pure moments.
Neverwhere closes on a world redeemed from normality–not because reality is rejected, but because the reality of the person is embraced. When you learn to see everyone as the protagonist of the story–as a three dimensional character–anything is possible.
Disclaimer for the squeamish and sensible: this book is not for the faint of heart. There is definitely an uncomfortable amount of gore. I had to take several breaks while reading in order to avoid being ill. If it were a movie it would be rated R. Please read responsibly.