This was a slow-burner of a book for me. Neil Gaiman has been on my ‘must read’ list for quite a while. From what I’d heard, I guessed I was going to love his work so it was one of those treats you save for later. I was initially disappointed – OK, but not a revelation. Then, about 100 pages in I started to ‘get’ it. By the end, I had been drawn in completely to the rich, full reading experience that is Neil Gaiman. I couldn’t put it down.
Essentially set on the cusp of a new age, this novel deals with the beliefs of the past and the objects of devotion in the often spiritually bereft society we live in now. The rich description of the ‘American Gods’ brings them alive and they become a living, credible part of the world we live in today. Without giving too much away, the brilliant and novel idea behind the source of their existence on the new continent is a stroke of imaginative genius. As you become accustomed to the diversions from the main plot that introduce the plethora of deities to you, the tale becomes denser and fuller by merit of their presence.
Shadow is a likeable protagonist. He is complex and lives in the grey areas between the monochromatic morality that society purports to adhere to. What makes him believeable and endears him to us is that deep down we too exist in the grey. The old Gods are fantastic characters. Gaiman brings them alive, not falling back on the safety cushion of how the literary canon has portrayed them before but making them real – with humour, personality quirks and emotions. If this is what Gods were really like, I might recant my agnostic stance. What is truly wonderful about this novel is that rather than just existing as a setting for the protagonists to navigate through, America lives, breathes and chokes its way through the alternative existence Gaiman has created for it – but a parallel America, not quite the one we know. The description is vibrant enough to cause the reader to look on America with fresh eyes. Gaiman’s America will always lurk beneath the surface. Coming from a multinational family, I found the subtextual treatment of immigration an interesting aside. I loved the idea of the traditions, superstitions and beliefs of an old world carrying something more than purely memories to a new home. The fact that no matter how much we’d like to believe that we travel unencumbered, rags and threads of our past and our homeland still cling.
I wished Gaiman had made more of the modern Gods. While the ancient Gods were rich and full, I felt that their modern equivalents were a missed opportunity. It’s not that they were young upstarts with less history – even conveying that still left room for the chance to afford them greater impact on the reader. The weak spot in the book for me was the ending – I loved the build up but the denoument was anticlimactic, it was over too fast. That said, these are minor gripes. I’d strongly recommend this book to those of you who enjoy an unusual perspective on the familiar. Thematically and stylistically, it owes more to ‘The Master and Margarita’ than to modern fantasy novels. Don’t prejudge whether Gaiman’s writing is for you, dive in and you may be surprised.