I recently re-read Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.
It’s a novel loosely affiliated with Gaiman’s much better known, much vaunted, American Gods. It’s a novel about Fat Charlie and, at heart, his relationship with his father, the trickster god Anansi. Of course, Fat Charlie didn’t know anything about that while he grew up. All he knew was that his father was completely embarrassing, and would do anything to humiliate him. Something that wasn’t hard to do, given everything seemed to go wrong for Charlie, who was always clumsier and more hesitant than most, and generally neglected by the world.
Age has done nothing but exacerbate these problems, but things are finally looking up for Charlie – he’s put an ocean in between him and his father for a start, which can only be a good thing as far as he’s concerned, and for another, he’s getting married. Yes, things are finally looking up. That all changes when he learns of his father’s death. Even in death, Anansi manages to embarrass and hinder his son. It’s while he’s home for the funeral that Charlie’s old neighbour, Mrs Higgler, informs him of his unique heritage and strange family.
Not sure what to make of these bizarre claims, especially about a brother he doesn’t remember, who can be contacted by “telling a spider”, Fat Charlie goes home. Far from being safe at home in his small, boring world, Charlie is horrified when his joking, drunken line to a spider actually brings his brother into his life. A brother who is everything Charlie is not, a brother to whom reality is as nothing – a brother who refuses to leave.
This is a mesmerising novel. It’s subtle and complex, absorbing and rich in detail, grand and ambitious in scope – it is as much about myths and the nature of storytelling as it is about Charlie’s own narrative and the relationship between father and son, between fantasy and reality. It isn’t just the joyous, spirited nature of the dialogue being struck here between author and reader, regarding the importance of Story and its place in our society; it isn’t just the warm, easy humour that flows through the pages, or the sublime multilayered storytelling, that makes this novel so superb.
It’s the tone that sets it aside, that sets all of Gaiman’s work aside from the rest. A whimsical, velvet soft, velvet dark tone that wraps itself around you, that says, look here, let me show you the wondrous, the horrible, the infinite worlds and creatures that lurk in the darkness – look here and don’t be afraid.
His work deals with adult themes in a fashion quite unlike anyone else, mixed as it is with all the charm and verve of a children’s novel and a child’s voice. It gives his work an added level of malevolence and, paradoxically, an added level of comfort. Reading a Gaiman novel, especially this one, isn’t a ‘walk in the park’, it’s an assured dance, a sweeping, rhythmic movement that will leave you dazzled and gasping and dying for more.