Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Review/Headline, Hardback, £17.99. ISBN: 0-7553-0507-8

Reviewed by Paul Kane

‘God is dead, meet the kids.’

The publication of a new Neil Gaiman novel is always a cause for celebration in genre circles. The author of Neverwhere, Stardust, Smoke and Mirrors and the phenomenal American Gods, as well as the creator of one of the most popular and thought-provoking graphic series of all time, Sandman, Gaiman never fails to impress, excite and surprise. And while Anansi Boys does draw on previous themes from his work – such as the inclusion of gods walking the earth and getting involved in human affairs – he does it in a completely different way than before. This is Gaiman in Good Omens mode, where a darkly comic edge informs his observations about life, the universe and limes.

The novel begins by introducing us to ‘Fat Charlie’ Nancy, who is not actually fat at all. He was once, when he was little, and has since lost the weight - but not the nickname given to him by his father. A source of constant embarrassment when growing up, said estranged parent succeeds in embarrassing his son yet again by not only dying in an unusual way (he falls off the stage while singing karaoke, right into the lap of a blonde sitting near the stage) but also by failing to inform Fat Charlie that he has a brother. As if that wasn’t enough, on flying from London to Florida for the funeral, he’s shocked to learn from one of his former neighbours, Mrs Higgler, that Mr Nancy Snr. was in fact the god Anansi, and that to contact his brother he need only let a spider know.

Dismissing all this as nonsense, Fat Charlie returns home where plans for his forthcoming wedding to Rosie are being made. Yet he can’t resist saying to a spider he finds in the bath one day: ‘If you see my brother, tell him he ought to come by and say hello.’ Thus begins the start of an incredible set of adventures, beginning when his sibling ‘Spider’ appears out of nowhere. He seems to have inherited all the charm and wit Charlie never had, not to mention some nifty god-like powers, such as being able to teleport to anywhere in the world instantly, or ‘nudge’ reality to get human beings to do what he wants. Pretty soon, he’s taken over Charlie’s job, his home – which now has a Tardis-like room in it containing a waterfall – and is snuggling up to his fiancée.

After being framed for fraud, Fat Charlie proclaims that enough is enough, and takes steps to get rid of his brother once and for all. But enlisting the help of Mrs Higgler and her friends, who practise a rather bizarre kind of voodoo, can only lead to trouble – and the deal he makes unleashes forces that threaten them all. Is it too late to undo all this or is Charlie’s bloodline doomed for all eternity? And just who is the real villain, Anansi’s nemesis who will stop at nothing to reclaim the stories that creation is made up of…?

Firstly, let me say this: there wasn’t a single page of Anansi Boys that I didn’t enjoy. Gaiman has a gift for the finer details and a knack for dropping things into the tale that you think are totally irrelevant, but in the end have a significance beyond anything else in the book. And he does this without ever sacrificing the story as a whole. Never once does he lose control of the reins or lose sight of the bigger picture. That’s clever writing. Add to this the richness of characters he populates his tales with. The main protagonists Fat Charlie and Spider are perfectly rendered and anyone who’s ever had an argument with their brother or sister will find themselves nodding their heads sagely at some of the asides in here. But Gaiman doesn’t stop there: his supporting cast are just as believable and well-rounded, from Rosie and her mother (who has a penchant for wax fruit), to Charlie’s scoundrel of a boss, Grahame Coats (‘If you happened to see Grahame Coats and immediately found yourself thinking of an albino ferret in an expensive suit, you wouldn’t be the first.’), and the detective investigating the fraud, Daisy. There’s even a nice turn from a ghost, who I won’t name because I don’t want to give too much away.

Of course, none of this would matter if the situations and the mythology upon which this is based weren’t sound. But I’m happy to report that here they are. Gaiman effortlessly weaves together the reality of life in London with the otherworld of animal gods and dreamplanes where the two overlap. I particularly liked the legends about storytelling and songs being the fabric of life itself (we’re reliably informed right at the start that the world was created by the singing of the song – and you know what? you believe it too). Plus the multicultural elements are all handled expertly – Gaiman apparently heard old friend Lenny Henry’s voice in his head as he was writing the book (and excellent to hear he will be narrating the audio version).

As I said at the start, Anansi Boys is different to the author’s previous work – if you’re expecting just a retread of American Gods, think again – but it slots in well to his body of work as a whole, and at times the humour lulls you into a false sense of security, as there are some really dark sections in the book (put it this way, Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren have a lot to answer for). However, the overall tone is tongue in cheek and the ending nothing less than satisfactory. Gaiman is an author who cares about his readership – you only have to look at his online journal to see that – and this comes across in volumes in his writing. So get yourself ready, because, as the song goes, the Boys are Back in Town…

(C)  P. Kane 2005

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