by Neil Gaiman
Review by John Berlyne
Review Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0755305078
Date: 20 September, 2005 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Aside from being one of the genres most talented practitioners, Neil Gaiman is certainly one of its busiest. Throughout his career, he has dipped his fingers into all kinds of genre pies and acclaim has invariably stuck to him like jam. He has been an editor, essayist and journalist; he's the creator of one of the most successful ever graphic novel series; he's written screenplays and teleplays (some of which he has directed himself); written for radio, comic books and children; has won numerous awards for his short and mid-length fiction; has had a best-selling collaboration with Terry Pratchett; writes one of the most visited blogs on the internet and I've not even mentioned his novels yet! - amongst which are Neverwhere adapted from the television series he wrote for the BBC and American Gods which won or was nominated for every major award the genre has had the presence of mind to think up. In short, if you've not heard of Gaiman, you're clearly either dead or have been living in another universe entirely! This is an author who has more than earned his lofty reputation and it is no accident that (I learned from his web site) the Dictionary of Literary Biography lists him as one of the top ten post-modern writers. So, we can take it as read then, that Gaiman is great and cool and whatever else he is - but what's his new novel like?
In American Gods, Gaiman wrote of a modern day world in which the Gods of our myths and folklore are still around, but have been relegated to dim memory by a progressive society. A brilliant novel, it explores what unemployed Gods might get up to in today's world - some become obsolete, mere shambling shadows of their former divinity, others embrace the power of technology and set about gathering new believers through modern mediums. If one considers Gaiman's new novel Anansi Boys to be a sequel to this earlier work, it is so only in the loosest sense.
In African folklore, Anansi the spider is a mischievous character, a spinner of tales and the most audacious of the animal tricksters. In modern day America, Anansi is a charming and smooth old man with a little black moustache and a stylish, if ridiculous fedora tilted upon his head -- and he has a son, Fat Charlie. It's not so easy to be the son of a God, even a comparatively minor one (in the grand scheme of things) like Anansi, and, though he's not entirely aware of his true heritage, Fat Charlie and his old dad have been all but estranged for some years.
Fat Charlie lives in London, where he works for an eccentric and unpleasant theatrical agent. He has a girlfriend, but her mother hates him. His life is tolerable, but unfulfilling and he suffers from a very definite feeling of something lacking. News of his father's death therefore comes as quite a shock to him, but the chain of events that it unleashes upon him causes this initial shock to pale into insignificance. He discovers a brother that he never knew existed, a brother called Spider who comes to visit him, moves into his house unbidden, begins to sleep with his girlfriend, gets him sacked from his job and generally causes no little mayhem about the place. There's something other-worldly about Spider, something that Fat Charlie can't help but be jealous of. It seems to him that his brother is everything he's not. And so the thrust of Anansi Boys is the story of Fat Charlie coping with all this, and discovering much about himself in the process.
In Anansi Boys, Gaiman reveals his intimate understanding of what story in its rawest form truly is, of its inherent power and of what it can do to those who experience it. In his exploration of the character of Anansi, Gaiman touches the very essence of story, identifying its cultural importance to the human spirit on every level of our being - as allegory, as cautionary tale, as escapism and as simple and joyful entertainment. Anansi Boys therefore has the tone of a dark fairy tale, and often it is a very dark one indeed. In this, more than any other facet, it resembles American Gods, but unlike that novel, interlaced through the fabric Anansi Boys is an engagingly charming humour which makes it an immensely likeable read. And Gaiman uses this to great effect, beguiling us with his gentle wit and then suddenly clubbing us with the blunt instrument of some horrific and shocking moment of which there was prior no warning.
An early review of Anansi Boys appeared on the Kirkus Reviews web site and though it was positive on the whole, it caused much consternation and commentary online in various people's blogs by stating that the book was "intermittently lumpy and self-indulgent" - that latter phrase causing the most trouble. I don't agree that Anansi Boys was in any way "lumpy" but there is definitely a self-indulgent aspect to it - though certainly not from its author. Anansi Boys is a novel for the reader to really wallow in, the kind of book that appeals to both the head and the heart and it is fine example of one of our best genre masters at work. I absolutely loved it!
Very highly recommended.