I am a fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics, but surprisingly this is the first of his novels I have read.
The premise is a man, Shadow, who has just been released from prison and finds his wife has died in a car crash. Feeling lost and numb, he accepts the offer of a job from a strange character he sits beside on his plane journey home called Mr Wednesday. He accompanies Mr Wednesday around America, meeting all manner of strange beings and becoming unwittingly involved in an altercation far bigger than he ever expected.
It is no spoiler to say that this book is packed full of deities and myths from around the world who have been brought to America by their believers, and in most cases stranded with very little support remaining. They are portrayed in wonderfully unique ways. For example there are deities in prison for fraud, working in funeral homes, turning to prostitution, and becoming insane and eating nothing but roadkill. It is written in a very fun way and is always entertaining.
There are some nicely worded interpretations of modern society throughout the story, which I liked:
‘The worst of the tragedy is that we’ve heard it before, and we cannot allow ourselves to feel it too deeply. We build a shell around it like an oyster dealing with a painful particle of grit, coating it with smooth pearl layers in order to cope. This is how we walk and talk and function, day in, day out, immune to others’ pain and loss. If it were to touch us it would cripple us or make saints so us; but, for the most part, it does not touch us. We cannot allow it to.’
The deities here aren’t all old and dwindling, there are new gods too; created from the things we now value most highly such as technology, the media, and money. Their interactions and comparative methods of worship are among the most insightful moments of the book.
I found Shadow to be a frustrating protagonist in some ways, because he is so unemotional and unsurprised by what comes to pass. He takes everything in his stride. I appreciate that this was intentional however (it is even mentioned by other characters), and not the result of poor writing. It is actually quite fitting for his background, and representative of a facet of modernity. Also it means that the fantastical elements in the book have more scope to shine in comparison.
Around the middle of the book, although I was enjoying it, I began to feel as though it wasn’t really making much progress. There was a lot of moving around from one State to another and introductions to new character concepts, but slow development on what I saw to be the central plot. I don’t know how much of this is related to the version of the novel I have: It is the author’s preferred edition, which was published after the original started to win numerous awards. It contains 12,500 words that were initially removed during the editing process, but Gaiman states in the introduction that this is how he always intended it to be read. I would be interested to know what had been edited out in the first publishing, and how much difference it made to the reading experience.
However the last 100 pages I was pleasantly surprised to find the pace picking up and threads coming together that had been left hanging throughout the story. It ended up having more depth than I had begun to think, and the central plot is concluded in a very pleasing way.
The back cover tells me this is ‘scary, gripping and deeply unsettling’. I have to admit I didn’t find it to be any of these things until perhaps the final chapter, and that was only in relation to one sub-plot. But I did think it was a wonderful concept, and one that still has a lot of life in it, I feel. Gaiman has already written a novella in the same world (which is included in this edition), and there is word of both a sequel and a TV series based upon it.
The Novella, Monarch of the Glen, is a nice extra to have. As the title suggests it is set in Scotland, and tells another tale of folklore interacting with the modern world, when a party of wealthy people hold a mysterious traditional gathering. Although it is a story in its own right, I would recommend only reading it after the main novel so that the theme makes more sense and it doesn’t spoil the outcome.
This special edition also includes a short interview with the author, and his statement as to why he, an Englishman, felt compelled to write about the American soul.