Monday, May 16, 2016

Anansi Boys - Neil Gaiman

Some time ago I read Neil Gaiman's American Gods (2001) and it is, in my opinion a masterwork. Anansi Boys is set in the same world and appeared four years after its hugely successful predecessor. I hesitate to call Anansi Boys a sequel though, both books have very little to do with each other. In fact, you need not have read American Gods to enjoy this novel. It is more of a spin off really, following the son of one of the minor characters in American Gods. Most people seem to feel this novel is the lesser of the two. I'm not sure I agree with that. They are very different works so for readers looking for more of the same, Anansi Boys will be a disappointment. Judged on its own merits however, it is a very good novel.

Fat Charlie is not actually fat. It is a nickname he got from his father of all people. His father is, to put it mildly, a constant source of embarrassment. It is no wonder Charlie has put an ocean between them and went to the UK to live and work. Now he is engaged to Rosie who, not fully understanding Charlie's predicament, insists on inviting his father to the wedding. When Charlie relents and phones one of his father's neighbours to make inquiries, she tells him he has just passed away. At the funeral he learns that his father died in a karaoke bar in a most embarrassing fashion and that he was in fact the spider-god Anansi. To make matters even more confusing, Charlie finds out he has a brother named Spider. When the two meet, it quickly becomes apparent his bother is everything Charlie is not.

Although the novel is very dark at times, Anansi was a trickster god and not a very pleasant one at that, it is a comedy at heart. Poor Charlie is at the receiving end quite often. He is a bit of an anti hero. I'm not too fond of that type of characters. Dutch literature is overflowing with losers of all kinds and in the few years my teachers tried to instil some appreciation for this type of writing in me. I'm afraid they achieved the opposite. Keeping that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction. I'm a bit more tolerant of Charlie because of the way Gaiman uses him in the novel. The contrast with his brother enables Gaiman to move the narrative from Monty Python-esque absurdity to deeply tragic moments and back again. 

Spider is the one that got all the god stuff, as one of the characters puts it. He is a trickster, a player of confidence games. He is also completely hedonistic and not one to take other people's feelings into account. He feels no remorse at taking over Charlie's life including his fiancée. Having a fiancée is new to him however, women were never more than temporary entertainment. Rosie makes him think Charlie might be on to something. Charlie on the other hand, is finding out that standing up for himself, makes him appear more like his brother. The drifting from complete opposites to men who could in fact be related is one of the things I liked most about it. Gaiman builds it up very well.

There are a number of secondary characters in the novel that contribute to it being hilariously funny at times. Charlie's future mother-in-law Mrs. Noah, the embodiment of everything negative people say about their mother-in-law, and Mrs. Maeve Livingstone, a very British vengeful ghost, are the two I enjoyed most. Gaiman doesn't stop there though, the cast is very colourful as a whole and he makes excellent use of them. They include Charlie's sociopathic boss, four voodoo practising old ladies and a disappointed police woman who refuses to give up on a murder case. Their characteristics are a bit exaggerated for the comical effect of course, but Gaiman is careful not to overdo it.

Gaiman's work is often infused with fairytales and mythology and this novel is no exception. In American Gods he borrows liberally from a number of different mythologies. In this novel it is more contained to Anansi stories. Anansi is a Caribbean deity of West-African origin. Other than that he is a trickster, not unlike Loki in American Gods, I don't know that much about the mythological figure, but he is so widely known that there are probably many variations for Gaiman to borrow from. I'd be interested in hearing what someone more familiar with the material makes of Gaiman's treatment of the myth.

Anansi Boys is a fast and very entertaining read. I wasn't sure if this book would work for me but despite the lighter tone of the novel, it is a complex piece of writing. Gaiman juggles the characters and their individual stories expertly and finds a good balance between the comical and darker parts of the stories. The tone of the novel makes it easy to read, without making the story seem simple. Gaiman delivers his tale as confidently as Spider must be feeling when he bends the world to his will. It is perhaps not quite the book readers who loved American Gods were hoping for. He simply takes his writing in an entirely different direction. It is a very well written novel though, one that certainly encourages me to read more of his work.

Book Details
Title: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Review Books
Pages: 348
Year: 2005
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-7553-0507-8
First published: 2005


  1. Haha, cool that we both read this around the same time! From the looks of your review, we had similar reactions as well.

    1. Hehe, it was bound to happen sometime ;)