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Book review: <i>Anansi Boys</i> by Neil Gaiman

If this was a dessert, it would be your favourite Grandma’s trifle—a lot less majestic than it seemed at age 9 but still bloody tasty once you hit the sherry-soaked cake strata.


Simple, symbolic font and spiderweb picked out in blue-gold foil against black. Nice enough, but nothing special.


When the everyman mch “Fat” Charles Nancy’s estranged Dad dies, he discovers a bunch of things about himself, beginning with the fact that his father was a God (the African spider trickster Anansi, inspiration for the Brer Rabbit tales), and that he has a brother who has inherited all the supernatural talents from his father. When the brother shows up he throws Fat Charlie’s life into a spin, losing him his job and his fiancée, but it is Charlie’s attempt at ridding himself of this unwanted sibling which sets of a chain of events leading to a Caribbean island and the beginning of the world, among other, stranger places.

The good

Gaiman is often lauded as a “storyteller”. I’ve never been exactly sure about what this means, unless it’s critical jargon for “truly sublimely so-easy-it-must-be-hard prose, over the top of fantastic and not especially analytical material, which nonetheless has a certain mythic feel to it”. In which case, I would agree. Each time I begin one of his books, the hint of self-conscious self-important whimsy (which I shall henceforth refer to as “gothery”) is mildly off-putting (here, for instance, the revelation that the mch’s now-deceased father was a God struck me as disappointingly run-of-the-mill. You could argue that this is due to my familiarity with Gaiman’s oeuvre, but however you look at it it’s 180 degrees from the author’s presumed intention, which is not a great way to handle the 1st main plot point). HOWEVER, his prose really is effortless. In the acknowledgements he thanks PG Wodehouse and, although the two are about as far distanced thematically as possible, I imagine them both thumbing their noses at the very concept and taking the same sheer meticulous pleasure in doing the very most with the very least number of words, all the while concealing the art so gracefully that we almost inhale the prose straight off the page. There’s a certainly proudly understated delight in Englishness in Gaiman’s work which resonates with Wodehouse too. And which I enjoy for what I can only call “personal reasons”. I.e. I don’t know.

The two central characters are strong, in a simple way, although I found Spider’s softening easier to swallow than Charlie’s enlightenment. Nonetheless, it was nice to read a story in this mode where the main character overcomes his flaws, and the charismatically amoral support eventually come to be kinder and more humane. A bit Hollywood, you might argue, but here this is Gaiman’s intention—as he says, in horror, everyone gets what they deserve, and in comedy everyone gets what they need. Normally his stories walk a line between these two fields, but here he consciously errs toward the latter. Which, as I’ve always suspected of Gaiman himself, is nice.

The bad

The re-imagining of mythic characters, Gods in particular, has been done a lot lately, frequently by Gaiman himself, and it didn’t help that the last of his books I read was American Gods, what I thought was the basically the be-all/end-all of the genre (he helped with this impression too, I might add). Once the story develops, the shift in style leads us down a slightly different path, but as I said I found it a distinctly unprepossessing way to start a book—the characters themselves are also at their most predictable and uninspiring at the beginning, too—his ineffectual and oblivious Arthur Dent-y loser and his Crowley-esque amoral supernatural slacker in particular. What I’m saying is, the story starts a little weakly and improves with the telling, which could sabotage it for many readers.
One could pick holes in the plot, if one wanted to, which one doesn’t, really. It feels a lot less comprehensively thought out than American Gods, but then it’s also a lot lighter and more fun to read, and there’s a “deleted scene” at the end which ties up a few loose ends—its omission would seem to indicate that Gaiman knows that the better part of his audience could give a crap about the more intricate threads of magic connecting his characters.

Like a good story (i.e. most of Gaiman’s work), this is difficult to criticise because, like Popeye, it am what it am. Gaiman doesn’t do anything new, but he doesn’t really need to, not when he can do what he does so well that few can touch him. He has, as they say, a voice, and if that plus an imagination is most of what he has, then so be it.

What I learnt

That the Brer Rabbit stories were originally about the African trickster spider God called Anansi.

How important a step each cultures’ “trickster” stories might signify, in terms of culture but also modes of thought and the human function of storytelling as a whole. So I suppose that’s a continuing theme of his work, right there.

In short

Title: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: HarperTorch
ISBN: 0060515198
Year published: 2006
Pages: 416

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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