Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Neil Gaiman’

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

After recently reading and loving Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane I fairly jumped on The Annotated American Gods when I spotted it, as my plan is to make my way through this author’s body of work sooner rather than later.

American Gods tells the story of a man named Shadow who was recruited by Odin, the All-Father of Norse mythology to act as Odin’s bodyguard. Shadow and Odin, who called himself Mr Wednesday, travelled all over America to drum up support from the other old gods living in present-day America as Mr Wednesday wanted to battle the new gods of technology, media, cars and other modern inventions to rule the new world.

The old gods were from all over the world, from every belief system that ever existed, but in contrast to the new gods, represented nature, seasons and humours rather than tangible items. The old gods distrusted each other and fought amongst themselves incessantly throughout this story, as did the new gods.

Shadow, who had been released from prison early after his wife died, was inadvertently given a magical gold coin by a leprechaun. After he threw the coin into his wife’s grave at her burial, Laura rose from her grave and follow Shadow around the country as a semi-dead version of her old self, protecting him from harm more as the gods prepared to battle.

The version of American Gods I read was annotated and I would have been lost without the notes telling me who each god was, what area of the world they were from, their background, what they were known for and most importantly, who they loved and who they hated.

The story was a mixture of the ordinary and the fantastical, of the lives and deaths of mortals and of gods. One minute Shadow was buying food in a supermarket, the next he was eating breakfast with Eastre, the Norse god of spring who, the notes tell me, was celebrated with feasts held in her honour long before Christianity and Easter were a thing.

I can’t say that I loved American Gods although I found the story itself to be very entertaining. I liked Shadow and his story and the idea that the gods walk around with us. I really, really enjoyed reading the notes that told the old gods’ backstories. I was interested to read (and probably know to be true) that the new gods might be worshipped now, but they will be forgotten much more quickly than the old gods as their kingdoms are superseded by gods whose realms haven’t been thought of yet.

I think the story was probably too big for this book, and the telling of it didn’t go far enough. I doubt I’ve ever said this about a book before, but I think American Gods should have been told over five volumes with each about the same size as the annotated version, and believe me, the annotated version is a lump of a book.

Having said that, there were some parts of the story that dragged and needed tightening up (and yes, I’m aware that I probably sound as contrary here as any of the gods did in the story).

I’ll continue to work my way through Neil Gaiman’s books, but will probably leave a larger amount of time in between this and whatever comes next.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane was an excellent introduction to Neil Gaiman’s work.

The narrator was an un-named middle-aged man who had returned to his former hometown for the funeral of someone who must have been very important to him, although this person or their relationship to the narrator was not named either. Instead of attending the wake, though, the narrator escaped to visit the site of his old family home, before travelling further down to the end of the lane to the home of his childhood friend Lettie Hempstock.

At Hempstock Farm the narrator was greeted by Lettie’s grandmother, who remembered him from his visits as a child. He then went around the back of the house to the pond, which prompted memories of a long-forgotten, but terrifying episode from his childhood.

The narrator’s memories began with the suicide of an opal miner who had been boarding with his family. When the boy and his father arrived at the scene of the man’s death, the boy met Lettie for the first time, who took him back with her to Hempstock Farm. There he learned a magical, evil being was on the loose and was preying on people’s desire for money.

Lettie took the boy with her to confront and ‘bind’ the magical being to prevent it from doing further harm to their community but when he let go of Lettie’s hand it took the opportunity to enter his body and access the ‘real’ world.

The next day a beautiful young woman named Ursula Monkton was engaged by his parents to work as a nanny to the boy and his sister. The boy was terrified of Ursula and knew she was somehow linked with the magical being who Lettie had attempted to bind the previous day. The rest of his family, particularly his father, were entranced with Ursula.

Under Ursula’s control the boy’s father tried to drown him in the bath, but he outsmarted her and his father and escaped to Hempstock Farm where he was safe, leaving Lettie, her mother and her grandmother to deal with Ursula.

Usually I struggle to believe in magical realism, but in this case, I loved it. Lettie, her mother and her grandmother were wonderful, wise, strong women and the narrator’s emotions as he endured and witnessed frightening and confusing events were completely believable, even if I did think his vocabulary was too advanced for a child of seven. I felt sad and nostalgic, as well as being variously confused, frightened and comforted as the narrator remembered the events of the story.

I’m planning to go on a Neil Gaiman book-binge.

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