This turned out to be a rather rambly review; apologies for that!
Being a big fan of Neil Gaiman, and having heard so much about American Gods, I was really looking forward to reading the book. But I have to say that — while I did enjoy the story — I was a little disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked the story. I don’t give 4 stars to just anyone, but American Gods to me was missing that little oomph which I have come to expect from Neil, that tingle of somethingness that would’ve pushed this book up to 4.5.
I’m going to be lazy and just post the blurb.
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’m going to focus mainly on the plot in my comments, because — to put it quite simply — I have absolutely no complaints about Gaiman’s writing style. In that respect he is someone whose writing I aspire to, and the more books I read of his, the more I wish I had his talent.
So let’s start with the positives, first.
A definite strength is the mythology involved, particularly of Norse gods, although references to other cultures are also made. I’ve never really read about Norse gods, and the more stereotypial supernatural beings were depicted rather differently than I expected; the story felt fresh in that respect. American Gods offers an original twist on old tales, so subtly done, that it is like meeting a familiar stranger, only to realize you were once friends. I think, with this strong and mixed mythology, all set in America, Gaiman has managed to do what few others have, and mythologised America.
Another aspect I like is how the gods are portrayed like normal people. Okay, normal people who can do awesomely magical things, but people nonetheless, flesh and bone, subject to sorrow and loneliness and death. None of this superior being malarky; there is a very human potrayal of religion, a co-dependant relationship between gods and people that reminded me of Scarlett Thomas’ depiction of heaven in The End of Mr Y.
One reason why I liked this human potrayal of gods is that, despite its title, to me American Gods is more about the believers than the gods. The fact that the gods lose power as people lose faith shows more about the people than it does about the gods. What I took away from this book was not that Americans do not have time for faith, but that all the subcultures are becoming homogenized, forgetting their roots to join together and form something new: the soul of America, whatever that may be.
Yes, yes, the other themes are there: the battle between old and new, the effects of progress, etc, but I wonder perhaps if the death of the gods is not a bad thing, for it breaks down the divides holding people apart.
Now, the negatives:
I found it hard to connect with the characters. Shadow seems to coast through what any other person would find traumatizing, without being the least bit bothered. The gods are at best pitiable, at worst self-absorbed and needy. But I wonder if perhaps that was Gaiman’s intention. Shadow is at one point described as a “solid, man-shaped hole in the world,” and that’s exactly how he appears to us; a numb robot moving through the story. This does improve in the second half of the book, but still: I found it odd that Gaiman would use so distant a narrator.
I was also a little disappointed by the end, which didn’t satisfy my expectations. For such a damn long book, the last part fizzled out rather surprisingly. I suppose, given the epic and fantastical aspects of the story, I was expecting more than a travelogue, but that’s all the story felt like, by the end.
I wonder if I would have enjoyed this book more had it not been this particular (uncut) edition, which is a good 12,000 words longer than the version which won all the awards.
In sum, readers new to Gaiman’s work may want to start with something a little less epic (such as Neverwhere), but I’d happily recommend this to lovers of Gaiman and/or Norse mythology.