Hippo Manchester
December 22, 2005

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Books: Anansi Boys: A Novel, By Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, 2005)

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Neal Gaiman has come into his own as an author. Since his explosion onto the pop-culture scene with his ground-breaking Sandman comic for DC, Gaiman has slowly but steadily worked to redefine what fantasy storytelling truly entails. His talents at comic yarns are legend. His comic offerings, especially in the cases where the illustrator’s tenor matched his own (case in point any of his collaborations with Dave McKean) often resulted in pure magic.

Since his move from graphic novels and comic books into prose his outings have been lively, imaginative and good-hearted — though they have contained a noticeable narrative schizophrenia. Restrained to children’s and young adult literature (as in The Wolves in the Walls and The Day I Swapped my Dad For Two Goldfish) or pure fantasy (as in the wonderful Stardust) this goes mostly unnoticed. When Gaiman turns to what fans know to be his calling, the realm of “modern fantasy,” we encounter missteps. Good Omens is enjoyable but gets by mainly on the charm of co-author Terry Pratchett’s wackiness. Neverwhere was clever but ended up being little more than a PG-13 hyper-saturated Clive Barker story.

His best work of prose to date, the rollicking and tangential American Gods, serves as a touch point for Anansi Boys. Both books share a character in Mr. Nancy, a.k.a. Anansi, a.k.a. the God Spider, god of stories and, I suppose, things that really creep my wife out. The story is centered on his son “Fat” Charlie Nancy, a London resident who leads a quite inconsequential life. Upon his father’s death he returns to his birthplace of Florida to learn of his father’s deific attributes and of the existence of a twin brother.

It seems that the newfound brother, cleverly named Spider, got all the godly traits while Charlie got the bad nickname. When they reunite spider turns Charlie’s life inside out, stealing his fiancé, embroiling him in an embezelment scandal that costs him his job and possibly frames him for murder. Justifiably ticked Charlie, with the help of four Floridian suburban witches, inadvertently arranges a celestial assassination attempt on his brother and possibly wiping out the whole Spider god bloodline. Gaiman takes us from backwater Florida to dour London to an otherworldly realm of deities and eventually the tropical isle (where all good embezzelment/murder/rogue demigod stories invariably end) of St. Andrews.

Gaiman seems to have finally found his voice in traditional literature with Anansi Boys. His characters are clever and robust, eschewing stereotype without becoming overly quirky. His world is both believable and fantastic, grounded in ours but frayed around the edges just enough to allow for the magical. This, his fourth prose outing,is finally a comfortable, balanced, nuanced and approachable tale. A definite grab for fans of modern fantasy or those looking for an in to the genre.

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— Glenn Given