Almost every person who lives in or visits London must imagine what goes on in the tunnels underneath that great city. Its history is so long and complicated; remnants are scattered all over the town, so surely the networks of secret tunnels must be crammed with history’s waste. The potential for exploring this idea in fiction is massive, and Neil Gaiman has admirably taken on the task.
In Neverwhere, he has created London Below, an entire world underneath the London most people are familiar with. London Below is populated with unique and memorable characters (the eccentric earl of Earl’s Court, a swashbuckling adventurer, ghoulish Burke and Hare-inspired murderers) and a great deal of wacky scenarios. London Below is a bizarre place to the outsider – but probably no more so than London Above – and it certainly functions as a living city.
And so it is a great shame that after having created this exciting, wonderful world, Gaiman disappoints the reader with a weak plot and poor storytelling. Inventive settings and fun characters are not nearly enough. A good novel needs a strong theme, something the writer wants to say about the world, or a way of viewing the world at least, and to persuade us of this the writer can call on his characters and setting. Gaiman simply gets too wrapped up in injecting more and more originality into the text and forgets that he’s supposed to tell a story too.
The plot is shockingly weak – once Richard, the Alice of this Wonderland, is installed in the Underside, as it is sometimes called, the main thrust of the story becomes his companion’s quest to investigate the death of her family. But potential twists and turns in this adventure are vague; it becomes increasingly frustrating that plot development is continually sacrificed so Gaiman can introduce another creature or custom of his underworld. To this end, the reader never feels like a local. Middle Earth is much more complex than London Below, and yet Tolkien ensures that the reader feels instantly a part of it. In Neverwhere, we’re never more than a guest.