Wednesday Reviews: Neverwhere (Revisited)

Way back in 2010, in my third-ever(!) post, long before I became the incredibly long-winded blogger you know (and hopefully love!) today, I wrote this post about Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. I wouldn’t say that it was a negative review, but it certainly wasn’t a glowing rave. Just a sort of above-average rating, I suppose.

I bring this up for two reasons. The first, of course, is that I’m here to review the Author’s Preferred Text re-release of Neverwhere. The second, though, is much more interesting to me. See, time a funny thing and it often changes and distorts our perspective of the past. When I picked up the re-released version of the novel, it was because I for some reason had a memory of reading the book as being some sort of life-changing experience. I had a vague idea that I might have written about it the first time I read it, but I didn’t remember for sure. Going back and re-reading that post, however, was unexpectedly surreal. I have no memory of writing it, thought write it I did. Moreover, if this was how I’d felt about the book, why then do I remember it as though I’d found the Holy Grail upon reading it? Where did this nostalgia come from if my initial experience with it was not unadulterated awe so much as mild amusement?

I don’t know the answer to that, honestly. How did “enjoy” become “love?” I’m not sure. I’m not sure how I read it back then and, apparently, had such a hard time with the plausibility. I mean, of course it doesn’t sound realistic, it’s a fantasy novel. I suppose I was young and stupid, but I was still a writer and apparently had no trouble with ‘salem’s Lot. Apparently vampires were more believable than an underground civilization. Even then I’d written a story about a ghost, and somehow didn’t look at that as an unreasonable stretch. But London Below? No, God forbid that one is believable.

Failings of youth aside, the point remains that somehow my memory twisted itself, and an adoration was born for a novel that I apparently didn’t hold in as high regard as I remembered. While I don’t know what the reason for that is, exactly, I do have some idea of what might have contributed.

In Elizabethtown, Claire Colburn (Kirsten Dunst) says to Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom), “I’m impossible to forget, but I’m hard to remember.” I’ve watched that movie quite a few times — to be honest I don’t even have a guess how many. More than five times, certainly. Possibly more than ten, for all I know. But in all that time, I never really understood what that line meant. I knew it was a great line, but I just wasn’t really able to parse it out.

Since you’re reading this blog I assume you’re an intelligent human being, which means you know that I’m bringing up that line because I’ve figured it out at last. I’ve read a few of Gaiman’s books, and I’ve always enjoyed them. But to be totally honest, I remember very few, if any, of the details of the stories contained within. I find it impossible to forget reading them, impossible to forget how much I always enjoy the experience, but quite difficult to remember any specific details. I don’t think it’s a failing on Gaiman’s part, by any means. The man is a phenomenal writer, a master of subtle wit and deceptively clever puns. I just don’t have a memory for specifics where his work is concerned. Even now Neverwhere is fading, and I finished it little more than a week ago. Gaiman’s work is fleeting and ephemeral, which I suppose is in keeping with the kind of strange material and worlds he so often writes about.

I suppose I should probably get to the actual review portion. As far as the novel proper goes, I couldn’t even begin to tell you what’s been changed from the original release. After all, I hadn’t read any version of the book for about five and a half years by the time I started reading this. I can tell you that I did love it this time. Like, I look back at my old post and don’t understand who that person was that wrote it. I will still agree that it’s probably not the absolute best book I’ve ever written — I think that title still belongs to Lang Leav’s Memories, though Joe Hill’s work is definitely up there as well. But it’s certainly one of my favorites. Maybe the first time I read it, I missed the magic it contained, or I didn’t pick up on the humor. Maybe I was an elitist prick and thought I was too good for a light-hearted fantasy. I don’t know.

Whatever the case, no one can deny that this new cover is gorgeous.
Whatever the case, no one can deny that this new cover is gorgeous.

As I mentioned, there’d a lot of really clever, subtle humor in this book. For instance, at one point the party encounters a thick fog, which causes one of them to cough. His response? “Fog in my throat.” A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pun that gave me a good chuckle. My personal favorite, though, is his descriptions of Croup and Vandemar early in the novel:

“There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelry; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.” (Neverwhere, Author’s Preferred Text edition, page 6)

I mean, come on, that’s just a truly beautiful set up for a joke. I hope I never forget it. And that’s the kind of thing that makes this book tick. Yes there’s a strong plot and great characters, there are twists and all sorts of strange, marvelous things. But the best part is Gaiman’s sense of humor shining through everything else.

As this is a special edition of the novel, there are, naturally, some extra bits at the end, after the novel itself is over. The first is the original, alternate prologue which introduces Croup and Vandemar in a much less spectacular way (read: it’s a straight introduction without the punch and humor of the one that actually made the cut). To be honest I think it was pretty weak, and I’m glad it was cut and replaced with the one that was actually in the book.

The second thing included in the book is a short story, which was finished not terribly long before this release. It takes place during the novel after certain events in the novel itself that I can’t mention because spoilers, and stars the Marquis de Carabas. When I first started reading it, I wasn’t sure that it felt quite right; I wondered if after so many years (about two decades, according to Gaiman’s introduction to this story), our author had lost sight of the narrative voice that was so strong and perfect in the novel. But thankfully I was wrong about that. In fact, there’s a lot more humor in this story than the novel, I felt, although part of that could be because in a short form work, there’s less space to spread the jokes out in. The story is quite striking because it gives us a great deal of insight into the character of the Marquis and into his past. In the novel itself, he’s quite a mysterious character, about whom we know precious little; in fact, for a great deal of the book we’re not even sure whether or not we should trust him. After this story, some things in the novel come into focus more clearly, in some ways, because we understand more about who the Marquis is and can better grasp his motivations.

When it comes down to it, I really do recommend Neverwhere. That much, at least, hasn’t changed in the past five and a half years.  The enthusiasm and sincerity with which I recommend it, however, has, and I think that was lacking last time. So there you have it. Time may have altered my memories and revisiting the book may have led to a new conclusion, but the fact remains that Neverwhere is a gem of a novel, the likes of which you don’t often see. Whether it’s your first time or your fifth, you owe it to yourself to take a trip into London Below.


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