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Anansi Boys Friday, 18 August 2006

Posted by slatingreview in Book Reviews, Genre: Fantasy, Neil Gaiman.
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God is dead. Meet the kids.

Anansi Boys Cover Title: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: Headline Review, UK
ISBN: 0-7553-0509-4
Price: GBP 7.99
Pages: 450

There is something about Gaiman’s way with words that I find utterly compelling. His imagery is bizarre but fitting, his prose, though sometimes bordering on poetry, never seems excessive, and his characters, be they human, ghost or god, come alive with a single sentence. So, even though Anansi Boys sometimes feels a bit cramped and the main conflict isn’t clear until you’re a good hundred words into the book, it is a great read by a great author that kept me up until 4am on a weekday night.

When Fat Charlie’s dad named something, it stuck. Like calling Fat Charlie “Fat Charlie”. Even now, twenty years later, Charlie Nancy can’t shake that name, one of many embarrassing “gifts” his father has bestowed – before he dropped dead on a karaoke stage and ruined Fat Charlie’s life. Because, you see, Charlie’s dad wasn’t just any dad. He was Anansi, a trickster god. And he left Fat Charlie things. Things like the tall good-looking stranger who shows up on Charlie’s doorstep, who appears to be the brother he never knew. A brother as different from Charlie as night from day, a brother who’s going to show Charlie how to lighten up and have a little fun … just like Dear Old Dad. And all of a sudden, life starts getting very interesting for Fat Charlie.

[Anansi Boys is] a scary, funny sort of story, which isn’t exactly a thriller, and isn’t really horror, and doesn’t quite qualify as a ghost story (although it has at least one ghost in it), or a romantic comedy (although there are several romances there, and it’s certainly a comedy, except the scary bits). If you have to classify it, it’s probably a magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family epic, although that leaves out the detective bits and much of the food.

That about sums up the central themes of the book, and I won’t attempt to put it any better, but it also gives you an idea about just how much Gaiman is trying to stuff between 450 pages. The main conflict, when Fat Charlie tries to keep control of the life his brother Spider has turned upside down, doesn’t really start until you are more than a hundred pages into the story. With six viewpoint characters it is sometimes hard to decide who the story is about. Who do we invest our emotions in? Which character do we want to succeed and in what way?

One of Gaiman’s biggest strengths is his ability to write comedy with horror elements. My first introduction to his work (apart from reading the fabulous “Angels & Demons” a couple of years back, which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett and thus is not the ultimate indicator of his style) has been his fantastic (in all interpretations of the word) novel “Neverwhere”. It started out as a modern-day fairy tale and hit me completely unaware when he introduced a character so nice and compelling, you couldn’t help but empathise, just to kill said person off a couple of pages later. It is Gaiman’s way of luring you in with his sparkling prose and sympathetic characters that makes the scattered horror so much more terrifying. While these scenes are but few in the first half of the book, they grow in numbers and stakes involved in the second, providing dramatic drive towards the climax of the book.

The overall theme of Anansi Boys, however, is family relationships and how we deal with them. On the one hand, there’s Fat Charlie’s relation to his deceased father.

The worst thing about Fat Charlie’s father was simply this: He was embarrassing.
Of course, everyone’s parents are embarrassing. It goes with the territory. The nature of parents is to embarrass merely by existing, just as it is the nature of children to cringe with embarrassment, shame and mortification should their parents so much as speak to them on the street.

This rare parental insight comes from an author who has to drop his daughter off around the corner of her school so her friends won’t see that he is driving a mini and won’t hear the music he listens to “because anything I’m playing is by definition embarrassing.”
Fat Charlie’s embarrassment for his father, however, is rooted deeper. His nickname, for example, is a gift of his father that he was never able to shake even though

[h]e was not fat. Truth to tell, he was not really even chubby, simply slightly soft looking around the edges. But the name Fat Charlie clung to him, like chewing gum to the sole of a tennis shoe.

So, when Fat Charlie’s father drops dead on a karaoke stage, Fat Charlie’s first reaction is not to mourn his father but feel embarrassed by the whole act. His self-consciousness and insecurity is, of course, what makes us empathise with him and hope for him to reach his goals as he slowly gains bravery and self-respect. His brother Spider, on the other hand, starts out as his polar opposite: witty, self-assured and a natural leader. Thanks to his godly powers, he can make people believe whatever he tells them to, and he uses this to take over Charlie’s life without remorse. But when he becomes interested in Charlie’s fiancĂ© Rosie, he feels his morals shift. For the first time, rather than making a girl be interested in him, he wants Rosie to love him on her own terms.

As the novel progresses and the main conflict draws closer, Charlie and Spider become more alike, each one regaining parts of their personality they lost when they were separated. The main moral (while parents are embarrassing and siblings mean they are still family and you can learn valuable lessons from all of them) is not new but Gaiman’s take on it hits home without using a sledgehammer.

The main quarrel I have with the book are the Anansi stories which are dispersed throughout the fourteen chapters. While each one is relevant to the story, to me, they were so mostly on second reading. The only one that really worked for me was of Anansi and the Bird, because it sets a dark, foreboding tone that makes you wonder what is going to happen next. As much as I like them individually, for adding a nice touch of color and background, their style is so different to the rest of the book that oftentimes they distract from the reading experience rather than enhance it. But then again, maybe I just didn’t get it the first time around.