Anansi Boys tells the story of Charles “Fat Charlie” Nancy. Fat Charlie is an accountant, engaged half-heartedly to Rosie, whose monstrous mother is set on disrupting their engagement. Their wedding preparations are put on hold when Charlie has to travel to the Caribbean to attend his father’s funeral. There Charlie learns that not only was his father an incarnation of the West African spider god, Anansi, but also that he has a brother, and that he can be contacted by asking a spider.
Charlie takes this news relatively well, considering, and returns to his humdrum life in London. Inevitably he can’t resist summoning up his brother, Spider. Spider is everything Charlie is not – confident, charismatic, persuasive. He sets up home in Charlie’s flat, and begins to take over this life, with, as they say, disastrous consequences, losing him both his job and his fiancee.
The supernatural is invoked powerfully in Gaiman’s previous novel, American Gods, because it is taken seriously; here the whimsicality undermines the impact of the narrative. There’s never any genuine threat from the gods who resent Anansi’s status, or from the more earth-bound Grahame Coats, Charlie’s sleazy boss, who has been embezzling his clients for years. Most readers will realise very early on that Charlie is going to end up with the petite officer investigating his case, Daisy, that Charlie and Spider and going to be reconciled, and that Mr Coats is not going to get away with his crimes. This lack of threat, even from the personification of the malevolent tiger god, led to one reviewer describing the novel as “whimsical supernaturalism” which feels about right. The New Your Times review of the novel used a similar phrase, talking of “an Uncle Remus folksiness to the stories that sends the airy blitheness of the farce plummeting down to earth”.
The other aspect of the novel that I found a little disappointing was the humour. Whimsy is always a tough one to pull off, and stripped of its context just about any joke can fall flat, but the jokes in the novel are consistently weak. Here’s some examples:
Spider: Things came up.
Fat Charlie: What kind of things?
Spider: Things. They came up. That’s what things do. They come up. I can’t be expected to keep track of them all.
More dialogue between Charlie and Spider:
“The ties of blood,” said Spider, “are stronger than water.”
“Water’s not strong,” objected Fat Charlie.
“Stronger than vodka, then. Or volcanoes. Or, or ammonia.”
This isn’t repartee. Ammonia’s not a comedic example of something unexpectedly strong is it?
The narration aims for Pratchett or Adams, but consistently misses.
“It was England in the autumn; the sun was, by definition, something that only happened when it wasn’t cloudy or raining.”
Does this mean anything? Does it say anything about the English weather, or is it just repeating a very tired cliche? Compare how Adams turns that idea completely inside out with the cursed rain god/lorry driver in (I think) Mostly Harmless.
“There was reality and there was reality; and some things were more real than others.”
“Nothing happened. Nothing continued to happen. More Nothing. The Return of Nothing. Son of Nothing. Nothing Rides Again. Nothing and Abbott and Costello meet the Wolfman…”
Not all the jokes fall flat. Rosie’s mother is a fine portrait of a prospective mother-in-law who could put anyone off the institution of marriage. Here she is allocating guests to tables at the wedding reception, applying the fine judgments of status that matter so much on these occasions:
“I’ll put her down for table H,” said Rosie’s mother. “She’ll be more comfortable there.” She said it in the same way most people would say things like, “Do you wish to die quickly, or shall I let Mongo have his fun first?”
Later there is this fine description of an outraged dragon:
The beast made the noise of a cat being shampooed, a lonely wail of horror and outrage, of shame and defeat.
But these are isolated exceptions of otherwise disappointingly flat
This novel is really aimed at the young adult market. Adults will find it mildly engaging if a bit superficial, but younger readers will be gripped by the story and their hope that it all works out well for Charlie and his family.
One final quibble – “nancy boy” in idiomatic English is a homosexual slur – was it really necessary to use this phrase in the book’s title?