Monday, February 16, 2015

Book Review: Anansi Boys

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Anansi Boys
Author: Neil Gaiman
Date: 2005
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-051519-5
Length: 384 pages plus a preview chapter from Fragile Things
Quote: “As a general rule, the only things properly terrified by the approach of penguins tend to be small fish, but when the numbers get large enough...”

British-American Neil Gaiman begins this novel by acknowledging his debts to “the ghosts of Zora Neale Hurston, Thorne Smith, P.G. Wodehouse, and Frederick ‘ Tex ’ Avery.” If you try to imagine a novel that this unlikely quartet, or someone who’d tried to learn from each of them, might have written, there is a very slight possibility that you’ll have some idea what to expect from Anansi Boys.
It helps if you know that Anansi is a trickster character in folklore and that “Anansi Stories” is a West Indian name for anything from comic nonsense to outright lies. Anansi Boys is mostly comic nonsense, but it does contain at least one outright lie.
It’s not exactly a horror story, but it does have a few characters who ought by rights to be dead. Mr. Nancy, senior, is a supernatural creature who has chosen to seem dead, temporarily, in order to lend his immortality to his son, Charlie Nancy. Charlie once ignorantly arranged for a witch to transfer his magical qualities into a separate life form, a “long-lost twin” whom Charlie decides wasn’t lost enough when he finds his grown-up brother Spider during the course of this novel. As each brother uses what powers he has to save the other, each matures into a complete young man. But there’s also a murder victim whose husband would prefer that she join him in the afterlife, but she insists on staying active as a ghost long enough to punish the murderer.
It’s meant to be nonsense, not religion, but since all “Anansi Stories” are based in a Pagan belief system that conflicts with Christian doctrines, fundamentalists are entitled to barn Anansi Boys from their home.
Banning it may make children more interested in sneaking peeks at it., They will probably “get” enough of the jokes to want to read the whole thing. I would encourage children not to read this book. You’ll miss too many of the best bits if you’ve not read all the older books that went into Gaiman’s mind to produce this one, and it’s unlikely that you’d have time to read all of them before age 25. Why spoil the suspense by reading the story before you can understand the jokes? Read Coraline, or any of the Discworld books, and save Anansi Boys for later.
There’s less sex and violence in this book than there is in most horror stories, but there’s enough of both to offend some readers. Women who respect their life-giving potential will particularly dislike the character of Rosie, who has always been able to abstain from premature baby-making with Charlie, whom she thinks she loves, but flops into bed the first time she meets Spider and decides that this means she loves him more. (To be fair, at that point in the novel the brothers look identical; Rosie thinks she’s finally giving in to Charlie.) Gaiman spares us the disgusting details and slips this plot element into the story deftly enough, wrapping it up in enough British West Indian slang, that a child reader might miss it...but it’s there. If she’s really in love, guys, she won’t even think clearly enough to bother about birth control! That’s the outright lie. If she really loves you, she’ll protect you from premature fatherhood, just as, if you really love her, you’ll spare her from even having to think about premature motherhood.
On the other hand readers are entitled to appreciate the West Indian-ness of the characters. Their culture, like their genes, is a mixture of Native Caribbean, African, Indian, British, and European influences. Nobody takes much time to analyze what came from where except when, as occasionally happens, someone defies the genetic odds by looking completely “White.” Being financially well off, the characters travel freely among the islands, London, and Florida. Free to be their individual selves, they hold no prejudices (only an occasional grudge) and feel some empathy for the less well-to-do West Indians who can’t afford to travel off their native island. Readers who live in places where they don’t meet people like this in real life will probably want to. I enjoyed being married to one; I enjoyed the memories Gaiman’s characters called back.
There’s also the chuckle factor...Gaiman is the student, former co-author, and novelistic heir of Terry Pratchett, and his comedic style is fully worthy of his teacher and should appeal to all Pratchett fans. Fans of Douglas Adams, Piers Anthony, Sue Townsend, P.G. Wodehouse, and/or Charles Williams should also enjoy this book.

Then there’s the sheer novelty of finding a story in English that sides with the spiders against the birds.

What I physically had for sale, and sold, when I wrote this review, was the basic paperback edition, which is still available online for reasonable prices despite efforts to push electronic and "collector" editions. To buy that as a Fair Trade Book, you send us $5 for the book + $5 for shipping, and we send Neil Gaiman or a charity of his choice $1. If you want to buy a "collector" edition as a Fair Trade Book, we can send that to you and send Gaiman 10% of whatever the price of the book plus shipping turns out to be.


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