This is my third Gaiman book, and I am continually impressed by Gaiman’s ability to break down every trope of the genre and rebuild it in a way that both continues to be fantastical but also makes it accessible.
“Neverwhere” is a dark, dangerous, high stakes journey that in the hands of any other fantasy writer would need a main character of power, or at least someone with an attribute that sets them apart. But Gaiman chooses to tell his story through someone so average, so normal, and so ordinary, that Richard Mayhew is about as exciting and interesting as a mud puddle.
Richard has a boring office life and a fiancé who micromanages every nuance of his existence to fit her own needs, which contents Richard, since it requires him to do very little, until he and his fiancé stumble across a hurt homeless girl in the street.
Against his fiancé’s demands, Richard feels he must do something and takes the girl home when she refuses a hospital.
His act of charity plunges him unhappily into the dark and strange world of London Below, the home of the misfits, the unwanted, and the forgotten of real London, and the only way to get back to London Above is to help the girl, Door, find the answers she seeks. Richard’s quest to get back home involves run-ins with angels, dodging assassins and succubae, and finding sense and meaning in the face of his own insignificance.
The Richard that re-emerges is a man with experience and a sense of true identity. He’s still Richard Mayhew at his core, but he has self-worth now, and an understanding of himself. And much like a veteran returning from war, he quickly realizes that he no longer has anything in common with London Above or the man he used to be.
I was most struck by this character arc throughout the book. In an average fantasy, a weak pansy of a character like Richard would be shoved through the ringer to emerge on the other end as a golden god of humanity or a vengeful hero. In Gaiman’s hands, Richard emerges as a better version of himself, which is far truer to a real-life transformation and a fresh, new end for a fantasy novel.
Richard, in general, also behaves more like a human would if put in similar circumstances than most fantasy protagonists, which I also enjoyed:
Richard leaned against a wall, and listened to their footsteps, echoing away, and to the rush of the water running past on its way to the pumping station of East London, and the sewage works. “Shit,” he said. And then, to his surprise, for the first time since his father died, alone in the dark, Richard Mayhew began to cry.
There were a few reviews on goodreads that denounce Richard as an annoying and pitiful protagonist, citing this passage specifically as the ethos of Richard’s helpless personality. But my heart broke for Richard in this passage because in reality, who among the first world middle-class wouldn’t have a similar reaction in such a circumstance? And then I celebrated with him in the passing of his ordeal and rooted for him through the beatings and torture he willing accepts for Door’s sake. He’s still a scared, nervous, and absolute ball of anxiety while it happens. He doesn’t embrace it, he’s not happy about it, but he realizes some things are worth more than himself, and that he doesn’t have to become a hero to get the job done.
And perhaps that is what’s really at the core of “Neverwhere;” there aren’t any heroes, not even reluctant ones. There are just people whose placement in time and space put them in a position to make a choice. Richard chooses to help Door, and that choice changes his life. He has a broader mind, a better sense of self-worth, and a higher level of confidence as a man who has “done things,” but he doesn’t take his new found confidence and begin saving cities or stamping out world hunger. He simply takes charge of his own life.