Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
Anansi Boys USA cover Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

William Morrow USA hardcover - copyright 2005
Jacket collage by Getty Images
334 pages (left)

Book reviewed December 2005

Rating: 9/10  (Very Highly Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys is set in the same universe as American Gods, which won the 2002 Hugo Award for best novel.  Anansi Boys is shorter in length, lighter in tone, and narrower in scope than American Gods, yet I think it is an even better novel.

In both books, the gods of different peoples' belief systems coexist in the real world.  American Gods grappled with the broad implications of this concept, following a conflict between traditional and more modern gods.  Anansi Boys focuses instead on a single person's run-in with the gods.  Anansi Boys is not a sequel and may be read independently of American Gods.  What's more, it is easily accessible to fantasy and mainstream readers alike, and its broad appeal helped it recently to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.

The hero of Anansi Boys is Fat Charlie Nancy, a thirtyish black man raised in Florida but long since relocated to London.  The high point of his mostly bland life is his engagement to an exceedingly good-hearted woman named Rosie Noah.  Fat Charlie is fairly good-hearted himself, even though he hates his boss, an amusingly slimy agent in the entertainment industry, he hates his irascible mother-in-law-to-be, which feeling is mutual (she has never forgiven him for biting into one of her pieces of wax fruit), and most of all he hates his father.

Why does Fat Charlie hate his father?  Well, for starters, Fat Charlie is not fat.  Yet everyone calls him Fat Charlie because his father once did, and when his father gives something a name, it sticks.  This is because Fat Charlie's father is a god - the ancient trickster spider-god Anansi, referred to as "Mr. Nancy" in American Gods, who came to the New World from Africa with the slaves and is best remembered by Americans today as the inspiration for the Bre'r Rabbit stories - and it can be terribly embarrassing to be the son of a god, especially if you are unaware of it.

Because Fat Charlie does not know his father's true identity, he is totally unprepared for the upheaval his life undergoes when his father dies (Yes, gods can die, although death may not be so permanent for them as it is for mortals.)  Fat Charlie travels back to Florida for his father's funeral, where he makes a hilariously misguided attempt to make peace with his father's memory.  When he visits his old neighborhood of Caribbean immigrants and is reunited with the delightful old ladies still remaining from the time of his childhood, Fat Charlie is shocked to learn that he has a brother.

After returning to London, Fat Charlie manages to make contact with his brother, Spider, who promptly appears on his doorstep, with disastrous results.  Unlike Fat Charlie, Spider has inherited their father's magnetism and his divine but mischievous nature.  Fat Charlie and Spider envy each other for different reasons, but mortals interact with gods at their peril, and within days Fat Charlie is desperate to find a way to get Spider out of his and Rosie's life.

Interspersed with the story of Fat Charlie and the people around him are traditional tales of Anansi, told in a folksy narrative voice different from the rest of the novel.  These whimsical vignettes seem unrelated to the main narrative, but ultimately help drive home the moral of all of Anansi's stories, including Anansi Boys, a moral that helps make this novel more than mere light entertainment.

Anansi Boys is a tremendous success.  It puts to rest any lingering doubts about Neil Gaiman's ability to translate his great talents as a graphic novelist to prose novels and should win him even more devoted fans, and I'm not just saying that because Neil Gaiman dedicated Anansi Boys to me (and to you, if you buy the book).  I find Anansi Boys an even stronger novel than American Gods, thanks to its wonderful humor and characterization.

Neil Gaiman has always had a sharp wit, but Anansi Boys is by far the funniest of his solo novels, perhaps even funnier than Good Omens, his collaboration with Terry Pratchett.  Whereas Good Omens was loaded with gags and parody, the humor of Anansi Boys relies on keen perceptions of human behavior and clever dialogue.  There are few uproarious jokes, but every page has a line to chuckle over, lines that you may miss if you read too quickly:

"The ties of blood," said Spider, "are stronger than water."
"Water's not strong," objected Fat Charlie.
"Stronger than vodka, then."
If anything, the humor is too successful.  Most of Anansi Boys is so entertaining and amusing that the story's few moments of betrayal and violence are unpleasantly jarring, although perhaps necessary to illustrate the underlying moral of Anansi's stories.

          The characterization in Anansi Boys has greater depth than American Gods.  The side characters are delightful, especially the folks clinging to their Caribbean culture - at one point the entire island of Saint Andrews becomes a side character, as all of its people embrace Far Charlie as "the man with the lime."  The main characters are interesting and (except for Fat Charlie's boss) sympathetic, and they develop in ways that ring true but are not easy to see coming.  Anansi Boys is set on a smaller scale than American Gods and is meant to be light-hearted, but because Fat Charlie is such an engaging character, seeing him come to grips with his mythic heritage is wonderfully satisfying and in the end tells us more about human nature than perhaps even Neil Gaiman expected.
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