What will you do, God, when I die?
When I, your pitcher, broken, lie?
When I, your drink, go stale or dry?
I am your garb, the trade you ply,
you lose your meaning, losing me.
– RM Rilke, Poems from the Book of Hours
It’s no secret that I’m a massive Neil Gaiman fan – and when I say ‘fan’, I mean that I have a serious author crush on him and could accurately be accused of obsession. Until the day I die, I will be recruiting readers to the Neil Gaiman club at every given opportunity – if you haven’t read a Gaiman novel/graphic novel/essay, or listened to the amazing audio-book adaptations of his works, then why not?!
It’s therefore not surprising that I recently read American Gods, arguably Gaiman’s most intricate work, for the second time, and reignited my love for this incredible novel. Prompted by the current TV adaptation of American Gods, I returned to the novel to refresh my mind, and so that I was properly armed with the facts in order to reserve judgement on the TV show (one of the small pleasures of the book worm). Once again, I was not disappointed. American Gods is firmly one of my all-time favourite books, and I hope that this review will push it to the top of your reading list, too.
The protagonist of American Gods is Shadow Moon, a man of great physical stature, yet quietly unassuming and, to some of his peers, unintelligent and lacking in personality. The novel begins as Shadow is released early from prison after a 3-year stretch following the receipt of some tragic news, which prompts him to return to Eagle Point, the town he lives in with his wife. On the journey to Eagle Point, Shadow meets the mysterious Mr Wednesday and from that moment becomes embroiled in an almost fantastical series of events that he could never have predicted, nor could have conceived to be real. Cue the most outlandish, extraordinary and yet entirely believable 700 pages of American Gods, unlike anything written before (apart from by Neil Gaiman himself). Along the epic journey, spanning US states and pasts long forgotten, Shadow and Mr Wednesday encounter a number of gods, both recognisable and unheard of, each with their own origin story and motives, of which we are allowed only a glimpse. Shadow soon learns that there is a dark war brewing, and he must choose a side before the battle between old and new, tradition and modernity, begins. Shadow is the prefect protagonist as he is a blank canvas; a drifter with no ties and nothing or no one to encourage him to return home, or to question any of the events he finds himself involved in. He is influenced easily by the charming Mr Wednesday, accepting of even the most bizarre situations and characters, and this makes him a refreshing lead, an anchor to prevent the reader from being swept away by the ever shifting sands of the plot.
Neil Gaiman is a true wordsmith, spinning yarns of gods long forgotten, weaving tales of distant cultures and conjuring legends of worlds that exist just beyond our rational minds. He writes fantasy steeped in realism; the settings are familiar, and concepts simple yet incredibly unique to his own unrivalled imagination. Gaiman’s passion for cultural history and mythology is evident from the detail with which he has enriched the novel – I challenge any reader not to find themselves researching an unknown god or historical event while still being engrossed in the world Gaiman has created. His novels must not be feared by new readers; he builds worlds that are accessible to anyone with an imagination, his voice resonant throughout, speaking directly to the individual reader. The setting of America is vivid and real – each town and landmark visited by Shadow and Mr Wednesday has its own character, mood, story. The characters, both human and divine, are engaging; it’s possible to love and revile them at the same time, they are inherently flawed, struggling with the shadows of their former greatness as the world moves on without them.
American Gods may be hefty in appearance but the novel flies along at breakneck speed, and is so enriched with character development, exceptional plot and vibrant setting that, to use the old cliché, it is impossible to put down. Read it, love it and join me in worshipping the astounding imagination of Neil Gaiman.
(N.B. – I stumbled across the Rilke poem I’ve quoted as I was preparing this review, and thought it fortuitously linked to the premise of American Gods. As Neil Gaiman himself said, ‘literature does not occur in a vacuum’!)