Friday, August 7, 2009

Book review: Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

The first stories were Tiger’s stories and they were stories of hunting and rending and teeth and blood. The world was a hard place then, and it hurt. Then Anansi, the Spider, the trickster, came and fooled Tiger, stole the stories away from him. And the people learned that life was full of song and dance and laughter, and even if it was hard, there was joy in it too.

Returning to the world he explored in American Gods, Neil Gaiman’s 2005 Anansi Boys is full of song and joy and laughter, and is a very good story indeed. “Fat Charlie” Nancy grew up perpetually embarrassed by his laughing, practical joke-loving dad. When, after years of estrangement, his father dies, Fat Charlie goes to the funeral and discovers that (1) his father was actually a god and (2) he is not an only child. If you want to see your brother, says the old West Indian woman who was Fat Charlie’s childhood neighbor, tell a spider. One night not too long afterwards, after a bottle of wine, Fat Charlie mentions offhandedly to a garden spider that he’s rescued from his bathtub that his brother should stop by.

So his brother does. Handsome, charming, lucky and fully aware of the benefits of being a god’s son, Spider descends upon Fat Charlie’s humdrum life and wreaks ample havoc upon it: seducing Fat Charlie’s fiancée, discovering financial inconsistencies at work which makes Fat Charlie’s shady boss nervous, getting Fat Charlie arrested, starting a cascade of events that lead to murder, séances and a trip to the West Indies. Fat Charlie is alternately fascinated and appalled by his brother but must concede in the end that his life is perhaps better – or at least more exciting – for having Spider in it.

Gaiman has done it again with Anansi Boys, weaving ancient folklore and modern storytelling with the greatest of ease. This is a lighter-weight book than American Gods, both in heft of subject matter and physical size (in fact, my only complaint was that it ended too soon – where it should have, story-wise, but I could have read twice the allotted pages because Gaiman is just that good). Instead of taking on all the old religions that built the United States, Gaiman this time focuses on the charming and devious “Mr. Nancy,” and what happens when a god’s child doesn’t know his godhead.

Part British police caper, part West Indian voodoo, part Douglas Adams-esque insanity, part folktale, Anansi Boys is great fun, great storytelling and, at the very least, completely identifiable to anyone who has ever been embarrassed by or frustrated with a family member. If all stories now belong to Anansi, then there is no question in my mind that Neil Gaiman is absolutely one of his boys.

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