Book recommendation: Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

I’ve just finished reading Neverwhere for the third time since I picked it up at random in a used-book store four months ago. Gaiman, apparently, is rather well-known, but I’d never heard of him. I’ve now read American Gods, which I thought was pretty good but not nearly comparable to Neverwhere, a text which, in my view, doesn’t have a word or a scene that isn’t precisely as it should be. 

It’s hard to say anything specific about Neverwhere without spoiling Gaiman’s very careful exposition, so I’m going to put the substance of what I have to say about it after the jump, and urge people who haven’t read the book, but might, to do so before reading past the jump here.

It’s a fantasy with a realistic framework, set in the London of the mid-1990s or perhaps slightly earlier.

Two things the author might have expected me to know that I didn’t in fact know:

* The Marquis de Carabas is the title Puss-in-Boots invents for the miller’s son he wants to pass off as an aristocrat.

* The London Underground station in Islington is Angel.

As a bonus, here’s Pentangle performing the Lyke Wake Dirge, which furnishes one of the book’s epigraphs. (The other is from Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill.)



Neverwhere is the story of a young man who moves from village Scotland to the City of London, where he does something vaguely described as “securities.” But his inability to ignore a wounded and destitute-looking girl leads him to fall through the cracks to the fantastic world of London Below, where all the picturesque names of London Tube stops have reality: there are black Friars at Blackfriars, and a real earl and his entourage at Earl’s Court.

Gaiman’s themes, as I take it, are compassion and courage, which makes the book sound a lot duller than it is. What struck me hard – and I’d be interested in others’ opinions – is its closeness in spirit to Douglas Adams’s Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, also a fantasy set in London. Both seem to me to be protests against the heartlessness of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite Britain, and specifically attempts shake the reader out of the capacity to ignore the homeless. The Adams book is really fine piece of work, without the twee affect of the Hitchhiker series. But Gaiman, unlike Adams, does not shy away from presenting goodness, and the result is – to my taste – far more powerfully moving.

I’d also be grateful for pointers to other comparable documents.




Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

15 thoughts on “Book recommendation: Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere”

  1. Gaiman didn’t write Neverwhere as a novel; he wrote it as a television drama, and then adapted his own screenplay for the novelization. I’ve seen claims that some novelizations greatly improve on the starting material, and indeed can think of a few (including perhaps Douglas Adams, who you mention); this is sadly not such an example, and seems to have been done in a rather haphazard manner. I’ve seen the television drama, and I’ve read the book, and I’d argue that the novelization adds nothing to the television drama (there are lots of ways it could do so), and the novelization suffers because some things that were presumably written in the screenplay to be elaborated upon by production staff are left rather sketchy in the novelization. So, as much as I like some other Gaiman books, I can’t really join your applause for Neverwhere, at least as a book as opposed to a political document.

    Speaking of television dramas, novelizations versus adaptations, and Douglas Adams: I recently noticed that you can stream the BBC’s Dirk Gently adaptation over Amazon Prime, and found it to be delightful, especially the performance by Steven Mangan and the pitch-perfect theme music. I heard bad things about it when it aired in the UK (not that I remember the details of the complaints), but I really enjoyed it. How faithful it is, I can’t say; I read Dirk Gently as a kid, having loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide, and didn’t understand any of it (I may have completely failed to understand the concept that the book’s hero might be completely unreliable); maybe I should give it a go with older eyes.

    As to your request: I’ll have to think about it. I have this strong sense that I’ve read a fair number of sci-fi and fantasy stories that stress the unseen dignity and power of downtrodden and victimized people, but nothing specific leaps to mind.

    1. Oh, by the way: BBC Radio 4 is rebroadcasting its radio adaptation of Neverwhere starting on Wednesday, available on demand by streaming anywhere in the world for a week afterwards. I don’t think it adds anything to either the TV drama or the novelization, but it’s available, starting later this week.

    2. I can believe all of this. I’ve never been a fan of Gaiman’s prose work. Neverwhere was good but not anything that stuck with me. I never finished Stardust. And the less said about American Gods the better; I have a friend that described it, accurately, as shallow mythological tourism.

      On the other hand, Sandman was incredible. For a guy who cannot draw at all, Gaiman has a fantastic sense of visual composition. If you see some of the scripts for the comic book you see detailed layouts of the pages with panel locations and sizes as well as elements of each, populated by crude stick figures.

      So it doesn’t surprise me that he would do very good screenplays that he then adapts to the written in an unsatisfactory way.

      1. I too don’t understand why so many people put American Gods at or near the top of Gaiman’s work. Neverwhere is better than American Gods, and Anansi Boys is better than Neverwhere .

        I like his newest book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Aside from mixing fantasy with modernity, it’s quite different in style and mood from his previous novels.

    3. Got the DVD. Watched Episode 1. If I hadn’t read the book I would have switched it off. The opening scene outside the pub in Scotland, which the book has and the TV series doesn’t – instead there’s a silly bit of looking-at-the-camera dialogue between Richard and Jessica – seems to me crucial.

      The book insists that Jessica is breathtakingly beautiful, while Door is an urchin. It takes Richard a long time to figure out that Jessica is not for him. Casting Laura Fraser as Door and Elizabeth Marmur as Jessica makes the viewer wonder why Richard hesitates.

      Maybe it depends on which version you encounter first. We could do a randomized trial.

  2. It’s been years since I read it, but it occurs to me that Megan Lindholm’s _Wizard of the Pigeons_ is in the same subgenre of magic and compassion among the street people (in Seattle rather than London).

    1. Ayup. Beat me to it. Mieville is my favorite urban fantasist, or whatever you call ’em. King Rat isn’t his best book, but it’s his first, and it’s a great place to start.

  3. Mark, I’m quite surprised you’ve never heard of Gaiman. Sandman reinvented the concept of the graphic novel. Actually Good Omens is lots better than American Gods and has the added bonus of being written with Terry Pratchett whose works I love. I’d add that Good Omens aside from being a spoof of Exorcist style movies also seems to be a bit based on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and RAF Greenham Common Women’s Peace Encampment anti-nuclear movement in England. I was a US Air Force officer (after the heyday of the marches) but I’m quite nostalgic for that England and didn’t particularly disagree with the anti-nuke campaign.

    1. Just finished Good Omens, which I’d put in the Hitchhiker class rather than the Teatime class. Cotton candy: tasty but insubstantial. Stardust was much more to my taste.

  4. I just wanted to put a word in for Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It’s ostensibly a children’s book, but of the kind that’s suitable for any age. It’s a bildungsroman about a boy who’s raised in a graveyard by ghosts. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is ostensibly for adults, but what both of these books show is that Gaiman’s greatest talent is for horror, and especially horror seen through the eyes of a child.

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