Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere, Headline Review, 2005
The strange and haunting tale of Neverwhere, crafted initially by author Neil Gaiman with Lenny Harry, began its life as a television series in 1996. It was subsequently adapted into a book by Gaiman and finally became a six-episode radio series on the BBC in 2013. My comments here refer to the radio version, published recently in audiobook format, available from Audible.
Neverwhere is built around an imaginative and hilarious use of the names of the stops on the London Underground in the strange world of London below. A familiar, mundane reality becomes the stage of outlandish and gripping adventures witnessed by an “upworlder” who strayed through his goodness and generosity into the world below only to become the central protagonist in a deadly quest.
The radio series Neverwhere is largely made up of short scenes that move the story on at a rapid pace. Cutting backwards and forwards between worlds also gives the author an opportunity to weave them together by his choice of words. Like when a character from the Upperworld says: “You saved my life” about a non-life threatening situation and then the story cuts immediately to a chase to the death in the sewers below.
The sumptuous world of sound in which the radio series is set owes its existence to Dirk Maggs, the same person who directed the original radio versions of many of Douglas Adam’s creations. Radio allows only a limited number of layers before sounds begin to merge and the result becomes garbled. Yet Neverwhere is rich in sounds, so much so that the story takes on added depth and breadth, literally oozing into your mind. Watery footsteps in underground wastes, the click of forks on plates in a posh social function, the gurgle of potent wine being poured into a glass, voices echoing off filthy cavernous walls, all anchor the story in a tangible, palpable world.
The radio series had me wanting to read the book, but it also raised questions about my own novel writing. I was intrigued to know if Gaiman’s book also switched rapidly from scene to scene so as to employ dramatic irony born of clever juxtaposition. It had me wanting to experiment shorter scenes in my novels with all the challenge that would mean in terms of multiple points of view. And what about the intense world of sound? How, if at all, could a book echo more richly such a sensuousness and depth born of sounds, not to mention smells and touch?