Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: Neverwhere

Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: urban fantasy, science fiction
My Rating: ★★★★ (4.5)

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Letting myself be ‘bitten by a radioactive Gaimanesque tale’ is probably one of the best things I did while exploring contemporary literature. Perhaps it did not transform me into some kind of a spandex-clad superheroine, but it gave me a peek into worlds of not-quite-dreams and not-quite-realities that made sci-fi and fantasy genres my cups of tea. These are worlds that only Neil Gaiman can bring to life. Once you get past their doorjambs, there’s no turning back. They are all damningly addictive.

Neverwhere, Gaiman’s first solo novel, is one of the bigger proofs that can easily justify his King of Fiction status in my personal lit hierarchy. It follows the story of young Brit everyman Richard Mayhew, whose life was turned upside down after helping a wounded girl on the sidewalk. He loses his fiancée, his job, his apartment, and nearly his mind. Suddenly it is as if he does not exist anymore—he has become semi-invisible, a non-person. He soon realizes that it is only this way with London Above. After he aided Door, the injured girl, he has unofficially linked his existence to London Below, a grittier and more dangerous parallel place to the one he has always known. In order to make sense of what is happening, he accompanies Door as she escape thungs on her trail, hoping that he can go back to his life in the end.

Neverwhere is an excellent amalgamation of almost all the essential elements a first-time Gaiman reader has to acquaint himself/herself with. There is the theme of ‘doors into alternate worlds’, angels, borrowings from other literary masterpieces that he tweaked into perfect molding with his story (Easter eggs from Lovecraftian tales are easily my favorite), and of course, magic. With his sterling prose, Gaiman blended and hooked these elements onto a fast-paced plot that is not just chockfull of adventures, but also of things you can pick up on a journey to self-discovery.

The ensemble of characters is wonderfully colorful. I liked Richard a lot, despite being a very nondescript antihero. Trying to untangle himself from the mess he got hurtled into by his Good Samaritan act, he is often stuck between being stubbornly reluctant and tremblingly terrified in assuming the role of a savior—a role he has to accept anyway, despite almost always filling the shoes of the guy-in-distress. It is worth noting though that in his unassuming eyes, he had just become some kind of a gender-bent version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy Gale, desperate to go back home. He develops a quite understandable one-track mind. Before he can achieve his goal, however, he will have to face ordeals that will bring a lot of enlightenment about himself and life in general. 

The determined Door, the enigmatic Hunter, and the sassy Marquis de Carabas are intriguing characters that provide a stark contrast to the otherwise bland (albeit charming) protagonist. The plot leaves too many questions about them though, and I wish Gaiman will indeed go back and answer these or even expand this universe.

What I liked the most about this book is how Gaiman’s ace world-building made it seem like the two Londons have lived to become characters in the story as well.  Gaiman has once said that Neverwhere can be read concretely, but there is something about the whole ‘fraternal twin’ cities as he presented it that suggested heavily of satire. The busy London’s underbelly is often populated with those “who fell through the cracks in the world.” They can clamber back up, but if they are not completely ignored by the Aboveworlders, they will remain in their memories for no more than a moment. 

London Below residents are basically Rummage Sale Rejects on two feet; even the Lady Door, daughter of the prominent Lord Portico, is clad in an assortment of dirty colorful fabrics beneath an oversized leather coat. Based on their appearances, Under-wordlers are very possible representations of beggars, vagabonds, runaways, or even just those who lost their residences and jobs. Like in many major cities, losing either of the two is grounds for becoming a ‘non-person’ to other people, so to speak. Now, remember how Richard takes great notice and—does not forget—the wounded Door the first they meet? It thinks it is chiefly because only the kindest and most compassionate people are the ones who acknowledge or help these ‘Underworlders’.

As for the prose, what can I say? Gaiman does not dial down when it comes to showing his writing talent. Along with the characters, London Below came alive…a gritty, dangerous, and labyrinthine place where time and consequences roil differently from its counterpart. Replete with humor, action, and drama, the book is packed with stunning imagery (OH, and watch out for the torture scenes, for in the recesses of my post-nightmare memory a few nights ago I can see glimpses of the whole thing. It still disturbs me when I think about it.) 

The plot is admittedly sewn from standard tropes, but the execution is done exceptionally, capped with a Gaimanesque twist. The ending left many people disturbed or dissatisfied because it flips one substantial part of the book into what seems to be a wild goose chase, but I liked it a lot. The only things I am concerned about are the questions I mentioned above. 

4.5 stars for a very satisfying read!

___

PS: I'm deeply saddened to hear the news that a New Mexico high school has pulled out Neverwhere from its reading list because a parent complained it has graphic sexual content, or something along that line. I think the school's decision to pull out ('temporarily ban'?) the book is a knee-jerk reaction. From the news bits I've read Neverwhere has been on their curriculum since 2004, and there hasn't been a complaint ever since. Why relent easily to one mother's objections? Why pull out the book 

For the curious, click here to see the, um, "jumper-fumbling" scene. Honestly, the point of the whole thing is to underscore Richard's "invisibility" to them, and if the dear mom is having problems about the language  or the make-out scene itself she should try watching the shows her kid watches right now, or just spy on a bunch of high school kids to hear how they talk these days. *BIG SIGH*

NO TO BOOK BANNING!

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