Neil Gaiman’s book American Gods is a long story with lots of ideas anchored by the experience of Shadow. Shadow is released from prison where he was incarcerated for doing something stupid. He is very much looking forward to seeing his wife again but he receives the devastating news that she is dead along with his best friend. There is now nothing worth returning to his old life for except to tie up loose ends. That is when he meets Mr Wednesday who offers him a body guarding role and, given the circumstances, Shadow accepts even though he doesn’t have any idea what it will entail. Spending time with Mr Wednesday opens up a whole new life for Shadow where nothing is quite what it seems.
The author’s idea is that the gods of our past and of mythology still exist but lack of belief has made them wither and lose power. They survive in any way that they can but Mr Wednesday wants to gather them together to face an enemy of newer gods created by modern society. Shadow slowly comes to understand what has happened and who these strange people are that he meets. In addition he also spends time with the ghost of his late wife and investigates a murder mystery in a town where he lives for a while.
Shadow is a man who has lost his reason for being and accepts what he sees and what people tell him. He gradually comes to accept the existence of these gods but he is mostly reactive for a large part of the book and only starts to act for himself as we reach the end of the story. I found him hard to engage with because he is so isolated in his own grief. The gods and other characters are drawn from many mythologies and the author mixes them all happily into one pantheon – native American, Norse, Greek, Egyptian and so on. Another theme of the book is about America’s small towns and roadside attractions and also about the people who do not quite fit in.
I found this book very long and thought that the author had included too many ideas which didn’t always fit very well together. It didn’t engage me and I found it a struggle to get to the end. On the other hand, some of the ideas are very unusual and the book is often insightful and funny but that wasn’t enough to make me enjoy the experience of reading the whole novel.