Thursday, April 29, 2010

Anansi Boys, A Review

anansi_boys Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman, is a strange book.  Like its cousin American Gods, I didn’t quite understand everything that happened along the way, but I did enjoy myself all the while.  Anansi is a prominent African and Caribbean god.  He is a spider in form, but often takes the guise of a man.

Fat Charlie Nancy has never really got along well with his father.  As a child his dad would play jokes on him, often resulting in loads of embarrassment and humiliation for Fat Charlie.  When his father died on a karaoke stage in Florida, Fat Charlie flew across the Ocean to attend the funeral and finally make his peace with the man.  But fate had something else in mind.  A strange, old neighbor and family-friend tells Fat Charlie that he has a brother, and that if he ever wants to talk to him then all he needs to do is tell a spider.  She also tells Fat Charlie that his dad was Anansi, and that he was a god.  Confused and uncertain, Charlie heads back to England to return to his bookkeeping job and his fiancée, Rosie, ready to get on with his life.

Indeed, life goes on for Fat Charlie, albeit somewhat dull and mostly uneventful.  But one night, while a little drunk, Fat Charlie is taking a spider outside and remembers the words of his old neighbor.  He tells the spider to tell his brother hello.  And from there things will never be the same.

Part of me really liked this book, but part of me simply thought it was okay.  Neil Gaiman is a wonderful word-spinner, and definitely at the top of his craft here.  The writing is beautiful.  The prose flows smoothly and reads easily.  I found myself laughing at some of the word choices because they were perfect.  The style of the book isn’t too serious, but it’s not not-serious, either, and this worked well with the many different characters.  Below are two of my favorite quotes.

“I knew that the meeting of two brothers, well, it’s the subject of epics, isn’t it?  I decided the only way to treat it with the appropriate gravity would be to do it in verse.  But what kind of verse?  Am I gonna rap it?  Declaim it?  I mean, I’m not gonna greet you with a limerick.  So it had to be something dark.  Something powerful.  Rhythmic.  Epic.  And then I had it…”

“Daisy looked up at him with the kind of expression Jesus might have given someone who had just explained that he was probably allergic to bread and fishes, so could He possibly do a quick chicken salad?”

Like the web shown on the cover art, the plot is one large tangle of different characters’ lives, all connected.  Some characters you can’t help but love; others you only wish their ill will.  Grahame Coats, Charlie’s boss, is one those kind of characters that exist solely to get on your nerves.

Another thing I really liked about this book was how simple and imaginative it was.  Fat Charlie’s story could almost pass as real, but for the minor magical and unexplainable occurrences that happen to him.  The fantasy is very mild and toned down throughout most of the novel, but there are a few instances when Gaiman spins a wonderfully vivid, imaginary world.  But I did feel that Fat Charlie was a relatable protagonist, and that’s usually a plus.

I also enjoyed Gaiman’s excellent use of mythology and folklore.  The man truly knows his stuff, and can tell it like no other.  On the surface, Anansi Boys is a story about Fat Charlie and his long-lost-brother.  But once you get reading it, you find that the life of a god (or of his children) is never quite that simple.  Tiger wants his stories back from Anansi, and he’ll stop at nothing to get them.

I suppose my unlikes were very few and rather vague.  It’s really just the overall story that seemed to be lacking.  On one hand, everything was connected and worked out wonderfully well.  On the other, I was occasionally lost and unsure, but I get the feeling that the reader is supposed to feel this way.  Still, not enough to complain about, just being a bit picky.  Also the story is not as grandiose as I was expecting, but instead rather straight-forward: Charlie wants to get his life back to normal.  And this, is the main source of why the story was simply okay.

Overall, I did rather enjoy Anansi Boys.  The lighthearted tale was fun to read, and the interspersed dark parts added enough conflict to the story to propel the book along nicely.  If you’re curious about Gaiman, I wouldn’t start with this novel, but instead opt for American Gods or the Sandman comics.  However, this book is a standalone and does not have any prerequisites.  So if mythology interests you, particularly African mythos, or if you’re wanting something quick and fun to read, I easily recommend Anansi Boys.

(NOTE:  Is it coincidence that I posted my reflection on American Gods one year ago, 4/28/09, and my review of Anansi Boys today, 4/29/10?  Probably.)


Shellie (Layers of Thought) said...

Excellent review Logan. I love the word mythos.

Right now I'm trying to define and differentiate between fairytale and myth. Interesting.

I will start with Gaiman as you recommend.. but I'm thinking that Instructions will be my very first.

Jay Belt said...

Interestingly enough, Gaiman himself actually advises against people recommending American Gods, which I find interesting because I love, love, love that book. But his point is that the novel is a polarizing love it or hate it type of book. I obviously fall in the former category.

As for Anansi Boys, I liked it a lot, it was a treat to read for me mostly because it allowed me to return to the same mythos that American Gods setup. But your review is spot on, there is a vagueness to the tale. And part of the feeling of being lost is due to Fat Charlie having the rug pulled out from under him on what his life was at the start of the book.

Shellie (Layers of Thought) said...

So Jay -
Since I am not familiar with Gaiman's work which book does he recommend you start with?

Thanks :)

John D said...

Hi Logan,
Nice review, and I couldn't agree more. There was so much about the book that I liked, and yet it didn't quite grab me. But I will read more of his work.

logankstewart said...

@Shellie: Aye, mythos is a great word. Let me know how Instructions turns out.

@Jay: Wonder why Gaiman advises against American Gods? Pretty good stuff, to me.

@Shellie: I've not read it, but I hear Stardust is awesome. Perhaps that one?

@John: Thanks for the comment, and definitely read more Gaiman.

Nymeth said...

I actually disagree that this book is at all simple or straightforward (I read it as a complex meditation on storytelling and how it makes us human), but I'm glad that even though you felt it was, you enjoyed it overall :) We all connect to different books at different levels, after all, and that's part of the fun of reading.

Carl V. said...

Very nice review! I'm glad you enjoyed the book despite having a few issues with the overall story. Gaiman's books, while all certainly written with his own unique touch, tend to be quite different from one another, in my opinion, so it doesn't surprise me whenever someone raves about one of his books and isn't as gaga over another.

I loved the story more the second time I read it, though I did enjoy it the first time. I am a fan of Wodehouse, which is one of the styles of story he was paying homage to when he wrote this, so I took that love and understanding into the story which added a layer of enjoyment for me.

If you ever get a chance to listen to this on audio, take it. It is wonderful! The narrator is absolutely fabulous. I generally prefer Gaiman reading his own stories, but this and American Gods are two exceptions. They work better on audio because of the narrators that were chosen.

logankstewart said...

@Nymeth: Thanks for stopping by. I guess I should clarify myself. What I mean by simple and straightforward is the main plot, that of Fat Charlie wanting to get his life in order. There are crazy things that happen along the ride, but overall, it just didn't feel as complex and epic as American Gods did to me.

@Carl: Thank you. I did actually listen to this book on audio, and I agree, the narrator was excellent. His natural African speech was a perfect choice for the audio production, and I loved it.

David Wagner said...

Hmm... audio book sounds like a good route.

I've been planning on adding some Gaiman to my reading list, but not sure where to start. Audio book might be a good way to go. Don't go that route too often, myself. I guess I'm too old school...

Nice review. Very thorough.

Carl V. said...

David: All of Gaiman's audio books are fantastic. He is a wonderful reader and the readers for American Gods and for Anansi Boys couldn't be more perfect.

logankstewart said...

@David: Aye, audio is fun from time to time, especially while sitting at work or taking a long drive. Definitely add Gaiman to your list, dude.