In 2000 I went to London for the first time, and after my conference was over stayed an extra week with my friends Liz & Eric. During that week, under Eric's enthusiastic guidance, I fell in love with the London Underground, and as I was packing, Eric turned me on to Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel set largely in the Underground. Richard, the protagonist, has stumbled into this underground world, and the first authority he meets sets him on the road to meet someone who can help him get his life back. He's being guided by a teenage girl named Anaesthesia. We've just met her; we know that she knows the ropes down here, but really that's about it. They're taking a shortcut across London Above, and have paused to sit on a bench, until Richard is reminded that denizens of the underground world, of which he is now one, are invisible to those who live above. A drunken couple sit down on the bench and start making out.
"Come on," said Richard to Anaesthesia, feeling that the bench had started to become a less desirable neighborhood. They got up and walked away. Anaesthesia peered back, curiously, at the couple on the bench, who were gradually becoming more horizontal.
Richard said nothing. "Something wrong?" asked Anaesthesia.
"Only everything," said Richard. "Have you always lived down there?"
"Nah, I was born up here," she hesitated. "You don't want to hear about me." Richard realized, almost surprised, he really did.
"I really do."
She fingered the rough quartz beads that hung in a necklace around her neck, and she swallowed. "There was me and my mother and the twins..." she said, and then she stopped talking. Her mouth clamped shut.
"Go on," said Richard. "It's all right. Really it is. Honest."
The girl nodded. She took a deep breath, and then she began to talk, without looking at him as she talked, her eyes fixed on the ground ahead of her. "Well, my mother had me an' my sisters, but she got a bit funny in the head. One day I got home from school, and she was crying and crying, and she didn't have any clothes on, and she was breaking stuff. Plates and stuff. But she never hurt us. She never did. The lady from the social services came and took the twins away, an' I had to go and stay with my aunt. She was living with this man. I didn't like him. And when she was out of the house..." The girl paused; she was quiet for so long that Richard wondered if she had finished. Then she began once more, "Anyway. He used to hurt me. Do other stuff. In the end, I told my aunt, an' she started hitting me. Said I was lying. Said she'd have the police on me. But I wasn't lying. So I run away. It was on my birthday."
Of course my heart went out to her. I love this girl; I want her to win through, to marry the prince, to live happily ever after. Don't you?
What mastery. A world-class character sketch in 250 words.
Eighteen pages later, Gaiman kills her. I don't think I've ever seen an author do anything so ruthless. It was almost a physical blow when I read it. But now I understood something fundamental about the universe of this book: no-one is safe here. And nothing else but the wanton destruction of such a finely wrought character could have conveyed that so well. I was torn between despising Gaiman for that, and admiring him. Much as I admired his talent, I didn't read anything else of his for years; that shock may have been why.
A few months ago I stumbled onto it again and, having all but forgotten the plot, re-read it and was charmed all over again. This time I decided to read more.
Stardust is a sweet romantic fantasy — with, of course, a twist. A young man completely devoted to a girl who couldn't be less interested in him. Without even knowing she's doing it, she sends him off on an arduous quest, for a fallen star.
I adore this book, and fully expect to read it again with great pleasure in a few years. It might not be suitable for preteen children; other than that, I recommend it wholeheartedly.
I cried my eyes out at the end of Stardust, something no book has made me do since the first time I read King Lear. I think that may be an idiosyncratic reaction, though. I am pretty lonely these days, and have been feeling that hard the past few months, and was at a low point when I was reading that book. And at the end of Stardust, Star is left to carry on in the face of unimaginable lonliness.
Last week, in response to the desperate plea from its owner, I dropped by Pandemonium and stocked up. And found myself totally sucked in by Coraline (making me almost certainly the last person on coraline's flist to read it). It's a novella; a children's fantasy about a little girl and what she finds on the other side of a door that goes nowhere. I read about the first third of it as I normally read: A dozen or so pages at a time, then putting it down to do something else, and maybe reading a chapter of another book before picking it back up. And for the last two thirds, I did not put it down until I was done. I can't remember the last time I found a book that compelling; possibly not since I was a teenager. I hesitate to say this, because it could be taken as implying that Coraline is trite or cute in ways that it is not, but I find myself thinking of it as a Wizard of Oz for our time. It's a horror story; a genre I dislike and always have. But I think I could have read it as young as 9 or 10 without nightmares.
Currently I'm in the middle of Anansi Boys, and thus not in a position to say much about it. A sample: Two old ladies are talking. Mrs. Dunwiddy, whose kitchen they're in, has just asked a question, which Mrs. Higgler answers.
Mrs. Dunwiddy took a large handful of wet cornbread and rammed it into th turkey with a force that would have made the turkey's eyes water, if it still had any.
Okay, I couldn't even type without laughing. And yet, even though it's a throwaway, a gag, it does a brilliant job of moving the story forward.
In short, this guy can write. Read him, if you haven't. Read him some more if you have. I plan to.