What do the folk tales of Africa have in common with contemporary life in the UK and the US? Different eras, different technologies, different cultures—ostensibly, little. But Neil Gaiman’s 2005 Anansi Boys brings them together in a light but successful combination of vibrant storytelling, lush prose, and the idea, indeed, something may transcend the tales of old to live in our times.
Anansi Boys is the story of Fat Charlie Nancy. An unexcitable, phlegmatic guy (the definition of ‘lacking in personality’), he was born in the US but as a boy moved to the UK. Growing up in London, he was never able to come to terms with his father. A gregarious, entertaining man willing to play dirty tricks on his own son, Fat Charlie has attempted to block his father from his mind since. But as it stands, his shadow still looms large. It’s thus planning a wedding that the news arrives: Mr. Nancy is dead, and Charlie is needed back in the US to close affairs. Spending time with his father’s old friends, he gets the personal closure he sought, but in turn gains new knowledge that sets his head spinning. His father a god and a brother he never knew of living somewhere in the world, Charlie doesn’t know what to think on the plane back to the UK. But life only gets more surreal when he finds a spider in the bathtub.
A beautifully unfurling story, Anansi Boys is a rich carpet of folk tales, modern life, and something—somethings—in a world beyond. The stone shell of Charlie’s personality slowly chipped away to reveal the real person inside, his encounters with tigers and voodoo, spiders and crotchety (and kind) old ladies ultimately lead him to a different place in life—one removed from his paint-by-the-numbers job and future mother-in-law from hell, and one that he can wake up to everyday with a smile. Charlie’s feelings of satisfaction, of having put life’s inhibitions to the wayside to live in greater freedom, is passed to the reader. This leads to:
If there is any fantasy writer today who can boast a screaming, underwear-tossing fandom not unlike the Beatles’, it is Neil Gaiman. And the reason is easy: the warm, comfortable voice. A cozy novel, Anansi Boys is easy on the eyes, the story delivered with appealing, singing-in-the-rain airiness. Tap the heels together three times, and everything will be alright. Plucking deft similes and the right word out of the hat at every turn, Gaiman is a born wordsmith. The characters and story larger than life in reality, with winks and nods, a little sleight of hand, and more than one convincing pat on the back, he eases the reader through a story that in the hands of most other writers would be pale or maudlin. It’s all about the delivery, and Gaiman is a maestro; the confidence Fat Charlie lacks Gaiman possesses in vast quantities.
And the voice is rooted in the characters. Ho-hum Fat Charlie, coffee guzzling Mrs. Higgler, the nefarious Grahame Coates, expansive Spider, mysterious Mr. Nancy, sweet, poor Rosie and her tart of a mother—even the maitre‘d and taxi drivers are characters with their own idiosyncrasies. Fat Charlie’s tale is an uplifting one that motivates and makes the world seem capable of rainbows and cotton candy, but the true heart of the novel is the characters which conversely build and tear down his social environment.
Liz Bourke states that she allows an author one unlikely coincidence per story, any more reason to dig out the red pen. I like the idea, and thus it’s with chagrin I must spill some ink on Gaiman. The opening scenes unrolling with uncanny seamlessness, the ending becomes a string of improbable encounters and doubtful runnings-into. Things likewise going wild plot-wise, Gaiman attempts to resolve the issues at stake in a knot of story—fantasy and real world—such that all the characters get their just dues in satisfying fashion. Partially successful, the lucid storytelling that had been the novel’s trademark is swept aside in favor of an unlikely convergence to provide the conclusion readers want, just perhaps not in the most synergistic fashion. It’s only that the story is so wonderfully light-hearted that one can forgive the contrived climax and just relax into the amiability of the resulting sentiment.
In the end, Anansi Boys is an enjoyable story of a man finding a better place in life. African folk tales slowly woven into his life, it is fantasy of the mythic variety yet holds a contemporary tale within. Featuring lively characters and written in warm prose that moves effortlessly, it features as much Dickens as Coyote trickster stories, and as much Agatha Christie as Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. A very British novel, Gaiman endears the readers to the novel through linguistic verve, easily accessed characters, and a charm that is thoroughly Albion.