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Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

What a remarkable, haunting and all together different book this is – not that I should be surprised about that considering the author. Not knowing what to expect and, frankly, not being enamoured with the title (though Gaiman’s work is another matter), I picked it up and was hooked from the first page.

American Gods tells the story of ex-con Shadow who, on his early release from prison, is coerced into taking a job as, fundamentally, an errand boy for the mysterious Wednesday, an old grifter who makes the impossible possible and who, it seems, has enemies in abundance. Claiming to be working towards averting a war, Wednesday takes Shadow across and into America – both as we know it and as a country all together different. Shadow, with little to lose and nothing to gain, obeys Wednesday – especially the tenet to not ask questions. Nonetheless, Shadow finds questions arising and answers lacking as he encounters the normal and paranormal; as his life takes one fantastical twist after another. Learning quickly that Wednesday is what he seems and more, Shadow understands that the war he is plunging headlong into has been building for millennia and, as hard as he and Wednesday and their peculiar allies might seek to avoid it, the clash between those he now realises are gods is inevitable.

This summary of the novel isn’t accurate – it cannot be without giving too many spoilers. It is unapologetically basic for this book is multi-layered, rich and complex and is based on the wonderful premise that we invent gods into existence – literally and metaphorically. They are intrinsic to the human condition – suffering many of those as well. They may not always resemble us physically, but they do carry the flaws and foibles of humanity, only in god-like proportions. Gaiman also introduces a world-wide pantheon of beings who, like the immigrants to the US bringing their gods to their new hearths and using them to help make the unfamiliar familiar, also recall their country of origin and those who once worshipped them, giving them shape, power and a future. But, as generations pass, and refugees, immigrants and their children assimilate into the new culture, so too do the old stories and memories which breath life into the gods – they change and alter and the gods as they once were both fade and transform. Struggling to latch onto the little they do have and those who remember them, the gods’ existence is tenuous, especially in a land where consumerism reigns supreme. But all is not lost, despite evidence to the contrary and Wednesday embarks on a final quest to reunite the old and vanquish the new…. or does he?

As Shadow undertakes his wild and uncanny journey, so do we, into a heartland at once immediate and ancient. Where those once worshipped struggle to have both identity and meaning in a world fast being overtaken by the new gods of technology and materialism.

American Gods is a tour de force. It resonates long after you finish the last page, the characters and the many tales (Gaiman also has these wonderful overtly unrelated to the major plot chapters that stand alone and with the novel, which just add depth and poignancy to the tale), lingering in your mind. As a protagonist, Shadow, as his name suggests is apt to loom when others shine most brightly, but he also hovers over the action, strong, silent and on guard. His slow awakening and understanding of his role and the meaning behind the war is powerful and heart-wrenching.

This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I am so glad I read it and I understand why this book has attracted so much acclaim and made its way onto top 100 lists etc. 41/2 out of five stars.

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