I want Neil Gaiman's imagination. He doesn't just come up with a storyline. Nope, he has to come up with entire worlds, filled with characters that couldn't come from anywhere else but his imagination: trickster gods, dead princes — and now London Below.
Thus is the case with Neverwhere, a slightly beaten hardback I found on the shelves of the local used book store months ago but saved until now. (One does not rush Gaiman works. One savors them, approaches them carefully. One can only handle so much assault on reality and yet remain in it.)
Richard is living his life as best he can. It's not a bad life. He has a job, a social life, a new fiancée — all in all, not bad. However, it's not exactly good, either. Like so many of us, Richard is going through the motions, living a life he has sort of stumbled into — and one, like a soft, fuzzy but sticky web, he can't escape. On a disastrous Friday afternoon with seemingly typical debacles involving work and Jessica (the aforementioned fiancée), he starts out for dinner.
He never makes it.
A young woman appears on the sidewalk in front of him and his fiancée, seemingly having fallen out of a wall, and bleeding. Jessica sidesteps around the young woman, but Richard can't. He picks her up and carries her to his aparttment, despite Jessica's stern warning about missing dinner with her (very powerful) boss. He doesn't listen. He must help the young woman.
Her name is Door, this strange, small and wounded woman. From the first, the encounter is one not to be understood. Can she really talk to rats and pigeons? Is he truly dozens of stories above London? Who is this marquis? And where did that copy of Mansfield Park come from on his shelves?
When she leaves, she apologizes with a great air of sadness. He doesn't know for what. He also is very insulted by the marquis, who dismisses him without an inkling of respect. After Jess (excuse me, Jessica) leaves a message on his answering machine, he's not inclined to venture out until work Monday morning.
And that's where it gets weird. (You'd think the pigeon would have done it.)
Richard disappears from his life and everything he knows. He wanders around aimlessly until —
Well, let's just say the author does not disappoint. I found it difficult to put down the book, and as I read it, I would every once in a while turn to David and say, "This is really really good." Then I'd turn back to the book and be lost.
With Gaiman, one literally does not know what will come next. At every turn, I wondered, and was delightfully surprised by what the author had in store. It was one long surprise, which is a rare treat.
There are many rich moments in the book, but one in particular stands out: Richard is challenged to either believe his reality at that moment, or believe that it's all in his head. Like one of the more interesting "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" episodes, the hero is provided with two equally convincing scenarios. However, as with just about everything in London Below, Richard has no room for error. Choose the wrong reality, and — well, let's just say the pain might not last too long, maybe. If faced with life as you knew it, which was so comfortable, and the new reality, which decidedly was not, which would you trust yourself to choose? Or rather, where would you prefer to be?
As the book came to a conclusion, it did follow part of a path I had anticipated — or rather, what I had hoped. I had come to love the characters and wanted the best for them. Thankfully, the conclusion wasn't exactly as I thought. The final pages went where I was glad to follow them.
If you like Neil Gaiman, this will not disappoint. If you like fantasy, this will be your book. If you like a story that you don't see coming, go get this book right away. Afterward, I suspect you never will look at the seemingly discarded members of the human race again.