Posted on January 3, 2006 by Monica Valentinelli
Written by Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by Monica Valentinelli
Gaiman returns to storytelling with an ordinary man named Fat Charlie that’s not-so-ordinary. His dad is none other than the spider-god Anansi who spins tales and weaves fanciful deception, interposing the surreal onto our coffee-and-orange juice lives.
Fat Charlie Nancy and his fiancée Rosie open the novel quietly; Charlie struggles to deal with the news of his father’s death. Gaiman takes on the character’s struggle, by advancing him (Charlie) from being completely oblivious to the supernatural, to somewhat comfortable in order to deal with his father’s true lineage, some meddlesome old women, and his magical brother, Spider. The pacing of the novel suffers as you are drawn slowly into Charlie’s awakening. As his character becomes more three-dimensional some of the other characters, like Rosie, are flat and stale as a result. The peak of this story is soft and unassuming— Charlie makes a desperate pact with a supernatural creature (the Bird-Woman) in order to get rid of his brother, Spider, who’s made a mess of things in his real, working man’s life. From that point on, the novel spirals deliciously into something warm, tangible and inviting. We are transported from sitting beside Fat Charlie in his flat, to a place inside of his jacket pocket. The anchors to reality blur as the novel speeds up, and the prose becomes more imaginative, more organic—it’s as if Gaiman was drunk on palm wine when he wrote it. Police investigations, wacked out birds, bad employers, fangs, and an old, spinster mother all play out within the dreamy tale. The resolution is not as predictable as you’d think; the characters do what they are supposed to do as gods and mortals.
What makes Anansi Boys interesting to read, is that this book transcends the issue of race or origin through Gaiman’s descriptions of more animalistic qualities of Anansi’s world and symbols that give us a color to focus on other than white or black or red. Symbols like Anansi’s green fedora help us dream the tale in Technicolor. By simplifying “race” (giving us only fleeting character descriptions) the prose emerges light and lilting. Class is well-defined but it’s laughable, comedic. You forget that the continent of Africa and her many gods are outside of your comprehension—you feel a part of the raw, natural order spring to life inside of you.
The in-your-face antagonists are dark, primitive, tribal. The Bird-Woman with her gaping, dark maw and black, beady eyes is an awesome character; in my opinion she’s the most visual out of all of them. The predatory Tiger is more fierce and hungry than anything you’ve read before, yet still the Tiger is a three-dimensional enemy; he’s angry because Anansi stole his stories not because he’s inherently “bad.” There is no tried and true “evil” in this novel other than a human character whose murderous deeds cause his downfall. You won’t find angelic “good” in this book, either, because this isn’t a book about good vs. evil, it’s a book about living large in an ordinary world.
There is very little to be taken seriously within this tome—you know there is a moral to the end of this tale, maybe even several, but you’ll read the book because Anansi’s dream is more appealing than stark reality. Fat Charlie’s struggles against his brother feel more like playground fun or childhood envy than they do of a grown man. And when things go bad (and yes, they do) it seems as if that’s all just part of Anansi’s storytelling—no matter how bad it is there’s always something (a masterful web to spin or some good-natured soul to bail you out) that will set you free.
Fans of Gaiman will want to compare Anansi Boys to his other works. I caution you not to, because this novel is different—it’s an attempt to translate an old oral tradition to an unseen audience. Personally, I wonder how much time Gaiman spent dancing with Anansi in unfamiliar jungle grass to keep his writer’s enthusiasm fresh and new and vibrant. You may have mixed feelings about Anansi Boys when you read it, but it’s still worth a read. The novel is a solid effort reviving an African-American mythos to a modern audience.