We found Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere as an audiobook at the library before our first long road trip of the winter, and the kids, who had already read it, were willing to listen to it again so Ron and I could know the story. What happened was that Ron enjoyed it, I zoned in and out (sometimes I get audio fatigue on a very long car trip), and the kids found it a little digressive and slow, when their experience of reading it silently to themselves had been much better. That meant I had to find a copy and read it, which I managed this past weekend, when our chess friends who live in Columbus provided Walker with a place to sleep, meals, and chauffeuring back and forth from their house to the chess hotel.
The cats were happy to have us home, for a change. Sabrina has given up on ever going outside again, and alternates sleeping in front of the heat vent and on the back of our couch, looking out the window. Tristan likes to get in among my potted plants and lash his tail angrily, looking out at the snow and the bird feeder. Sammy, who is almost 15, sleeps everywhere. On those rare occasions when a beam of sunshine comes into the house, he follows it and sprawls in its warmth. Here’s a rare picture of him awake; he was staring at me, willing me to get up and feed him.
Neverwhere, while a good book to read in one gulp on a snowy Ohio day, is very much set in London, which gave Eleanor pleasure in the re-hearing. “I’ve been to that underground station” was her undying refrain. She is, by the way, a person very much suited to the English climate; when she came back her skin was luminous and pale in a lovely way that strangers commented on, but now that she’s been back in Iowa she has her usual winter patches of red skin and nosebleeds.
Anyway, Neverwhere is a fantasy adventure set in “London Below,” which is a place where even an ordinary man can become a warrior, with a nice cup of tea beforehand. The protagonist, a very ordinary man named Richard Mayhew, slips out of our world and into London Below by rescuing a girl named Door from two seriously villainous but occasionally bumbling-seeming characters named Vandemar and Croup:
“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.”
While they are always presented in a slightly over-the-top way, which might make the unwary believe they are not as dangerous as they evidently are, the comic exaggeration in the description of Vandemar and Croup serves to remind readers of the sense of menace everyone feels in their presence, a menace so big and black that no one in their vicinity seems able to tell one from the other, despite the enormous differences in their appearance.
As they remind their employer at one point, Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup
“brought the Black Plague to Flanders. We have assassinated a dozen kings, five popes, half a hundred heroes and two accredited gods.”
They have not done any of this in a particularly sinister way, but like middle-aged bureaucrats in ill-fitting business suits. When Mr. Croup asks, rhetorically, “’if you cut us, do we not bleed?’ Mr. Vandemar answers, “with perfect accuracy, ‘No.’”
Richard and Door are assisted by the Marquis de Carabas, “a creature of pure irony” at times, although handy when dying and then coming back to life will get them a little more information. I love the part where Old Bailey, disappointed that the marquis can’t describe what death was like, says “After all I done to bring you back from that dread bourne from which there is no returning. Well, usually no returning.”
Door’s quest is to find out what happened to her family, and to do this she must meet the Earl of Earl’s Court, the Angel Islington, and the black friars of Blackfriars. There are more name jokes based on underground stations, but that gives you an idea of how the fantasy world is based on puns and mapped out.
Richard alternates between relishing his role in the fantasy world and wanting his ordinary life back. When Door asks him to get food, he “felt oddly proud. He had proved himself in the ordeal. He was One of Them. He would Go, and he would Bring Back Food.” But when he is praised for killing “The Beast” and becoming “the Warrior,” he “folded his arms, exasperated. ‘So, after all this, I still don’t get to go home, but as a consolation prize I’ve made it onto some kind of archaic underground honors list?’”
Ordinary life will never be the same, for Richard himself, and for anyone who reads about his adventures. You might find yourself paying a little more attention to the kinds of animals and people that formerly seemed inconsequential, for example. Listening to this book at someone else’s pace may not lend itself to that kind of attention, however. Reading it at your own pace, all at once, is the best way to enjoy the silly bits, race to the exciting parts, and relish the way it all comes together.