An adventure, a black comedy, a fairy tale of sorts and a romance, "Little Gods" tells the story of larger-than-life Jean Clocker, whose birth challenges the very balance of nature and whose body resists all attempts to contain it. A girl - and later, woman - of unusual size and strength, fitting in is never an option for Jean, but it takes the chaos of war - and, later, America - to persuade her to fully appreciate her extraordinary stature.
There are plenty of reviews on Goodreads that catalogue this book's faults, I however want to talk about the things I really enjoyed about this novel. First and foremost, Jean is the most wonderful protagonist. Jean defies space and as such is constantly out of sorts and the book tells her story as she is constantly 'reincarnated' through misfortune - she endures a terrible childhood with a mother who uses her as a servant and then she is 'reborn' thanks to a bomb blast. It's a book about identity and coming to know yourself, not in the clichéd way of certain YA novels but in the slow, meandering process of self-realisation. Perhaps Jean's defining trait is her desire - she always wants more, she wants her life to mean more, to have more purpose. Watching her navigate the world, steered by this obsessive desire and the haunting presence of her mother really moved me. It's not a complicated character arc but it's done really well - whilst I didn't always agree with Jean's choices I always understood exactly why she was following a particular path.
Beyond Jean 'Little Gods' features an excellent cast of secondary characters. It's a book full of contradictory ladies which I really appreciated. Jean's mother is spiteful and cruel but we get enough of her backstory to ensure that she's not a caricature. Gloria, Jean's best friend, also has a wonderful disillusionment arc. Not only are the individual characters excellent but Richards does a really good job constructing the relationships too - the depictions of motherhood/friendship are not always flattering but are honest.
'Little Gods' is written beautifully and there is some really wonderful prose. Perhaps my favourite non-spoilery passage was this:
This was her shame; she loved the chaos of war. It wasn’t a theatre, it was a circus, and it had finally come for her. It could be something other than brutal and nonsensical, and these rare moments had to be savoured, enjoyed like English sunshine. Jean had seen the storm of limbs, the juggling of arms, heads, teeth - the moment when even the plainest human realises their extraordinary beauty before it is scoured off them by fire and raked by shrapnel. She now secretly suspected there had never been anything so perfect as her back before the bomb; as broad as a double bass and as sensuously curved, it had been unblemished. One of her scars even looked like a sound hole, carved beside the strings of her spine; an adornment rather than a wound. She added this to her pile of secrets, fearing that she was the only one who could see it this way; that she alone could love plainness with the fierceness of one who almost died before living.I also strongly associated with the line: '"I always carry at least one book,' he informed her. 'One never knows when one might need not to talk to people.'" On balance I enjoyed first half of the book more than second - that owes a lot to the fact that it contained the war narrative (as we all know by now children-of-war are my kryptonite! Also, I found it more difficult to engage with the stuff set in America - I'm not quite sure why but there's something about the tone/colour of mid-C20 America that I really struggle with. That being said the excellent characterisation/prose was present throughout so I was happy to persevere!
In short it's a beautifully written ode to complicated women struggling with ideas of identity. Highly recommended.