I’ve just finished listening to the audiobook version of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, the preferred text read by the author.
It’s been said that writers are often the worst readers of their own work, which may be true in some cases, but not this one. Gaiman’s rendering of the different characters’ voices is brilliant, vivid, and captivating. Listening to his verbal characterization of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandamar alone is worth the price of admission.
And there’s little lost in the translation from page to disc (or file in my case). Granted, there may be moments in any audiobook where the listener/reader loses the thread for a moment and doesn’t have the luxury of flipping back a page or two to re-establish context. Gaiman’s reading of the book is so enthralling, however, that it’s not likely for this to happen.
For instance, we get to hear Gaiman describe a character reacting to her boyfriend’s apartment by noting that it makes her feel particularly “female.” And we get to wonder through his intonations about just what a very large amount of liver would sound like if it was slapped onto a hard surface. And we get to play with the idea of a liquid being “aggressively green” in Gaiman’s playful handling of the lines.
Of course, the plot and characterizations are further pluses. In a nutshell: a rather average Londoner discovers a hidden world called London Below where people who have “fallen through the cracks” make up a bizarre and fascinating society. Things terrible and wonderful happen to the main character, Richard Mayhew, as he tries to help the Lady Door discover the truth about the people who are trying to kill her. Along the way, we get to hang out with cutthroats and a marquis, people who talk to rats and others who talk to rooks. There are people who can be trusted and some who can’t, and some who are right in between.
The listener is pulled along with Richard into the depths of London Below, and even farther, all of it wrapped up beautifully in ways that are not expected. Indeed, Gaiman plays against expectation, including literary tropes about relationships and the hero’s journey, but tweaking them in ways that are refreshing and ultimately satisfying. He creates a world that is rich and layered, frightening and intriguing, and the listener discovers it at the same pace as the protagonist. His confusion and disorientation and sense of loss are ours, and his triumphs, too.
I think the thing I like best about the book is that Gaiman doesn’t feel the need to wrap up every loose end. Some may look at that as sloppy or as a cheap set-up for a sequel (which Gaiman seems determined not to write), but I view it differently. In real life, in London Above or Anywhere Above, not all loose ends are tied, not even into a frayed knot (if you know the book, you’ll get the reference). In Gaiman’s handling of things, he doesn’t go for the pat ending, doesn’t go for cookie-cutter resolutions, or firm answers to some of the book’s deeper questions about fantasy and reality or madness and sanity. It does, however, give just enough answers, hints at them in ways that provide their own satisfaction. And as a result this fantasy ends up feeling rather plausible, the characters and their outcomes believable, since in reality (whatever that is) the loose ends aren’t always firmly bound either. The things we want most to know and possess often end up falling “through the cracks” as many of Gaiman’s characters have done.
I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to Neverwhere, but I’m glad I’ve done it now and expect I’ll want to go back to London Below again even if Neil Gaiman chooses not to take readers there again himself. Given that, the only downside, in my mind anyway, of listening to the audio version is that I find myself wanting to go back and re-read scenes and passages right away. I guess I need to pick up a paper copy now. No doubt, when I re-read, I’ll be doing it with Gaiman’s voice in my head.