I’ve just finished reading Neverwhere for the third time since I picked it up at random in a used-book store four months ago. Gaiman, apparently, is rather well-known, but I’d never heard of him. I’ve now read American Gods, which I thought was pretty good but not nearly comparable to Neverwhere, a text which, in my view, doesn’t have a word or a scene that isn’t precisely as it should be.

It’s hard to say anything specific about Neverwhere without spoiling Gaiman’s very careful exposition, so I’m going to put the substance of what I have to say about it after the jump, and urge people who haven’t read the book, but might, to do so before reading past the jump here.

It’s a fantasy with a realistic framework, set in the London of the mid-1990s or perhaps slightly earlier.

Two things the author might have expected me to know that I didn’t in fact know:

* The Marquis de Carabas is the title Puss-in-Boots invents for the miller’s son he wants to pass off as an aristocrat.

* The London Underground station in Islington is Angel.

As a bonus, here’s Pentangle performing the Lyke Wake Dirge, which furnishes one of the book’s epigraphs. (The other is from Chesterton’s The Napoleon of Notting Hill.)

Neverwhere is the story of a young man who moves from village Scotland to the City of London, where he does something vaguely described as “securities.” But his inability to ignore a wounded and destitute-looking girl leads him to fall through the cracks to the fantastic world of London Below, where all the picturesque names of London Tube stops have reality: there are black Friars at Blackfriars, and a real earl and his entourage at Earl’s Court.

Gaiman’s themes, as I take it, are compassion and courage, which makes the book sound a lot duller than it is. What struck me hard – and I’d be interested in others’ opinions – is its closeness in spirit to Douglas Adams’s Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, also a fantasy set in London. Both seem to me to be protests against the heartlessness of Thatcherite and post-Thatcherite Britain, and specifically attempts shake the reader out of the capacity to ignore the homeless. The Adams book is really fine piece of work, without the twee affect of the Hitchhiker series. But Gaiman, unlike Adams, does not shy away from presenting goodness, and the result is – to my taste – far more powerfully moving.

I’d also be grateful for pointers to other comparable documents.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.