American Gods by Neil Gaiman

A review of the contemporary fantasy novel American Gods by Neil Gaiman.

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is an award-winning epic fantasy novel set in the contemporary US. It is a sometimes sprawling and often ingenious book, offering both a rich and wide-reaching world of gods and mortals, along with a much more intimate story of a man searching for purpose and dealing with grief.

The story begins with the protagonist, Shadow, given early released from prison when his wife dies in a car accident. Travelling back to his hometown to attend her funeral, he meets Mr Wednesday, a curious con artist who is obviously more than he seems. As the tale progresses, Shadow takes a job as Wednesday’s driver/bodyguard/assistant/protégé and the pair trek across North America, meeting a series of increasingly bizarre characters along the way.

The central conceit of the novel is fairly high-concept: gods are manifest amongst humanity and feed off worship in whatever form they can. Whilst that is interesting enough by itself, the book is elevated by regular asides. The regular chapter structure is broken-up by a series of self-contained stories of how various gods came to be in America. In the author’s preferred text edition these are expanded and added to, increasing both the heft of the novel and the depth and richness of the world being created.

In addition to the ‘Old Gods’ who were brought to the States via belief of immigrants, there are ‘New Gods’ such as Media and Technology who have been born through changing attention and new forms of worship. Gaiman subtly comments on society and its ever-shifting focus through this, and I wonder if, had he written the novel now, those gods might include Facebook and Netflix. Even so, the rivalry between the old and new gods generates the main conflict of the novel.

As far as characters are concerned, Shadow is both a standard protagonist and something else entirely. He is a male who says little and is good with his fists, yet his heritage is frequently questioned and he is alluded to be mixed-race. In the recent TV adaptation this was pushed further, and a black lead was cast. It is refreshing to see. The story is completely stolen by Czernobog and Mr Nancy—both old gods, both brilliantly realised—and Gaiman has consistently proven his ability to write captivating secondary characters.

The main fault with the novel is the twist ending, which I found relatively anticlimactic. The entire story promised one thing which it then failed to deliver, however I feel that was Gaiman’s intention. The beauty in the book is not the ending, but getting there. If Gaiman had wanted a sharp ending, he would have written a shorter and more concise book. Instead of focusing on a few key characters and moving the plot forwards, he chose to explore a large cast in great detail, and everyone gets their moment to shine. Over the course of the novel we get to know so many characters so well that any ending would feel a little like a let-down, so Gaiman has embraced that and let us down further, reminding us that it is not about the destination—which Shadow and Mr Wednesday could easily reach if it were not for their meandering—but instead about the journey. This is a road-story, a travellers’ tale, and therein lies the joy.

Originally from Thanet, J A DuMairier enjoys writing and long walks in the country.

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