Monday, June 20, 2011

Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

By Neil Gaiman

Published: 2001

 Synopsis (Goodreads): After three years in prison, Shadow has done his time. But as the days, then the hours, then the minutes, then the seconds until his release tick away, he can feel a storm building. Two days before he gets out, his wife Laura dies in a mysterious car crash, in apparently adulterous circumstances. Dazed, Shadow travels home, only to encounter the bizarre Mr. Wednesday claiming to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America. Together they embark on a very strange journey across the States, along the way solving the murders which have occurred every winter in one small American town. But they are being pursued by someone with whom Shadow must make his peace... Disturbing, gripping and profoundly strange, Neil Gaiman's epic new novel sees him on the road to finding the soul of America.

I've been putting off this review for a couple of weeks now for two main reasons. Firstly, I wanted to give it a little distance so I didn't get all fangirly and just shriek about how much loved it without giving you guys a decent review, and two, well I wasn't really sure where to start since it's such a massive book (not purely in physical size) and I didn't want to write a 10,000 word essay trying to cover it all. So now I've given it a bit of space and I'm hoping I can give you all a thoughtful, descriptive and informative review that doesn't go overboard in the fangirl stakes! Before I launch into it I should probably mention that the edition I read and am about to review is the author's preferred text, so it is substantially larger than the original editions which had been cut down by Gaiman per his editor and publisher's advice.

really enjoyed this book and one of the reasons was that it created a culture and mythos for a country that, like Australia, is fairly new and whose mythos/culture is usually determined by national identity and current trends/fads. I've often felt a little sorry for myself because I don't like in a country that has a 2000+ year old history that has lead it to it's current incarnation. Yes we have the Indigenous Australians (as America has the Native Americans) but their culture, though old and beautiful, was never adopted as a national culture. Instead we've accumulated a rather patch-work quilt of varied cultures, gods and myths and thanks to American Gods I'm starting to see the beauty in that.

American Gods depicted the struggle between the gods and myths brought over by immigrants from across the globe, and the gods created by the society (media, techno-kid etc) who now call themselves Americans. This old versus new dichotomy isn't new but Gaiman's approach was by far one of the more interesting and thought-provoking versions I've ever read. Rather than existing in some far off mystical place (Heaven, Hades, Asgard, Mount Olympus etc) the gods of all the different cultures and creeds exist amongst the people that worship and believe in them. As the people travel to new worlds and new places, they bring their gods and myths with them and there they mold them into a new incarnation of the god/mythical creature. An absolutely beautiful example of this happens when Shadow (more on him in a minute) views Mr Nancy on the giant Carousel.

"He was looking at Mr Nancy, an old black man with a pencil moustache, in his check sports jacket and his lemon-yellow gloves, riding a carousel lion as it rose and lowered, high in the air; and, at the same time, in the same place, he saw a jeweled spider as high as a horse, it's eyes an emerald nebula, strutting, staring down at him; and simultaneously he was looking at an extraordinarily tall man with teak-coloured skin and three sets of arms, wearing a flowing ostrich-feather headdress, his face painted with red stripes, riding an irritated golden lion, two of his six hands holding on tightly to the beast's man, and he was also seeing a young black boy, dressed in rags, his left foot all swollen and crawling with black flies; and last of all, and behind all these things, Shadow was looking at a tiny brown spider, hiding under a withered ochre leaf.

Shadow saw all these thing, and he knew they were the same thing."

Shadow sees the many incarnations of Mr Nancy, the various truths, beliefs and stories that people have tied to him over the years. None of them are more right or truthful than the other, instead they depict just how beautifully varied and imaginative people can be. It's quite a beautiful idea and quite a visually extraordinary one. To me it sums up exactly why living in a multicultural society is so interesting, the variations of opinion and belief, none more valid than the other but all so startlingly different and with something new to bring to the table.

I won't burden you with a breakdown of the synopsis since the one above provided on Goodreads is a fairly detailed and accurate representation of the story, so instead I'll touch briefly on the characters who are perhaps the most important and crucial aspect of this book.

Shadow is thecentral character in this story. He's large, domineering (at least in appearance) and has only just been released from jail. While he has obviously taken some bad paths in life you never get a sense that he's a bad person, more that he was shuffled onto those paths by the people he loved and trusted. To me he always seemed like a large chunk of granite waiting to be sculpted, plain, bare and without personality. This lead me to see him as a bit of the straight guy that is used in comedy, he was left simple and plain so that the large and colourful characters around him would pop even more. As the book continued though it was as though someone was chipping away at that granite, shaping it into something more interesting and real. It took awhile but I began to see the complexities and shades of his character, and once they appeared I found it much easier to enjoy him as the protagonist and how the story unfolded around him. As it were he's actually a rather crucial player to the story's climax and I think perhaps the dull and shapeless beginnings of his character is a bit of a red herring to throw you off the scent.

His wife is Laura and her death is the reason Shadow gained an early release from prison. Returning home for her funeral Shadow is met with the unpleasant news that she’d been having an affair with his best friend and it was their last sexual tryst while driving which ended both their lives. As he stands over her grave Shadow throws in a magical gold coin obtained from a leprechaun into the dirt as a final gift and departs. Being magical though this coin brings Laura back to life, well, back as much to life as a zombie is. I found Gaiman’s depiction of her as quite hauntingly beautiful, this decaying memory forever hanging around Shadow and connecting him to his past. However as much as I enjoyed her depiction, I hated her character. I found her ungrateful, annoying, rude, controlling, and selfish and couldn’t reconcile the beloved image Shadow had of her with the one I was shown through the book. I’m not sure if Gaiman intended for her to appear that way, and she certainly did work at redeeming herself by the end, but I couldn’t stand her. (first impressions are hard to break for me.)

Mr. Wednesday was one of my favourite characters. He was complex and interesting and never to fully be trusted. In my mind he seemed to swing between Santa Claus and Colonel Sanders (from KFC) in appearance, perhaps because of the repeated descriptions of his white facial hair and a pale suit. Mr. Wednesday is the American incarnation of Odin and his depiction was so different to any way I’ve ever seen his depicted before. I loved him, he seemed to fit right in with current American trends,fads and characteristics. He was a womaniser, a gambler, a trickster, smart, independent, vocal and a little obnoxious. He may have been a god, but his swings from confident to vulnerable to madhatter level crazy to deceitful and hard made him so human. He was flawed, as were all the other gods, and I loved that Gaiman did that, that he removed them from their pedestal and brought them down to the level of humans.

There are so many characters in this book so I couldn’t even attempt to cover them all, just about every major god or myth has a role in this story, Jesus and his water into wine trick gets a glimpse, Horus, Loki, Eostre, Anubis, Bast, leprechauns, kobolds, amongst others, all play a role. Most of the gods appear in their human forms and have taken a human name, for instance Mr Nancy is Anansi, and so unless you know your mythology it can sometimes be hard to recognise exactly which god they’re meant to be. Gaiman isn’t cruel though, he gives you the tools to find out for yourself. Their names will give you an idea of their god-like form, so Mr Jacquel is the human incarnation of Anubis who was the jackal headed Egyptian god. Anubis was associated with burial and mummification which again is depicted in another clue as Mr Jacquel works as an undertaker. Some, like Mr Jacquel were easy for me to recognise, others were more difficult, but all sent me on a wonderful rediscovery of mythic characters both during and after I completed the book.

I think it’s pretty obvious that I loved this book. It was engrossing and engaging and filled with characters who were so layered and complex that they almost jumped off the page and walked out my front door. It’s a long read (my edition is 635 pages long) but the style of writing and the content makes it almost impossible to put down. I finished it within two days but had I not had an assignment to work on I probably would have devoured it in a single night. This would be one of the tops reads of this year for me, and I couldn’t recommend it enough.


  1. I've been waiting for your review of this book and I have to say that this is one of the best reviews I've read on a blog ever. I don't think I could do this book the justice that you did. In a word: amazing.

    I really need to get my hands on the preferred text. I've read the shorter version twice, but I'd love to see what was taken out.

    I'd never thought of America and Australia being so similar, but I guess it is. Similar history, similar (bad) relationship with the native population, etc. I keep meaning to learn more about Australia but I keep meaning to do a lot of things that I never seem to get around to (learn Arabic, read all the books on my shelves, publish a novel, etc.). Maybe someday I'll get to it all.

  2. Thanks Gabe! It was such a hard review to write, it was about twice the size originally and I had to keep cutting it back, and back, and back so it wasn't an insane fangirl'd ode to Neil Gaiman!

    I'd actually like to read the shorter version to see how different it is. I saw on Goodreads quite a few people giving it low ratings and I wonder if perhaps they read the shorter version and would have thought differently reading the same version as me.

    I'm in the same position as you, except about American history. It's kinda hard to escape, but I've only ever known the surface/more well-known bits. It'd be interesting to read some more on it. If you want an fictionalised accounts of life in Aus (fiction yet inspired greatly by Australian events/people) I have a stack I can recommend!

  3. American history (to me) is insanely boring, although it could be because it's been shoved down my throat since birth. I knew a girl in Germany who thought that American history was fascinating and that German history was snooze-worthy. Can't say that I agree with her on that, but to each their own, I guess.

    When I get through a substantial amount of the books on my TBR list/personal shelf, I will definitely ask you for suggestions on Australian lit. As for American history, I have some books I could recommend, but it'll depend on what you're interested in (Native Americans? Civil War?). Can't help you too much on the lit side because I tend to read books by authors from outside of the US. Although, considering Gaiman lives in Minnesota now, I think America can claim him as one of our own. LOL

  4. I think everyone's own history is slightly boring because it's always right there within reach. I'd definitely take any recommendations you can give. I'm not really sure what I'm really interested in, but probably more around war and politics, but I'd be open to any suggestions!

  5. Great review, Kayleigh. I finally got around to reading American Gods just last year. I enjoyed it immensely. I will be very interested to see HBO's upcoming American Gods series.

  6. Thanks Conor! Thank god for HBO, I can't imagine anyone else (tv or film) tackling this monster of a book!

  7. Yay I seem to be able to comment at last. Gaiman is great isn't he, did you see the episode of Dr Who he penned? I feel guilty that I have American Gods on the shelf and still have not read it, I will soon. A most excellent post, you make me feel bad for putting off reading American Gods.

  8. I did see that episode, it's up there as one of my all time favourites! The man can do no wrong in my eyes!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...