Book Review: African Myth and an Adult Hero’s Tale in Anansi Boys

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Reader’s confession time again: Anansi Boys is the first novel of Neil Gaiman’s that I have ever read. And I didn’t even read it, really; I listened to Lenny Henry read it and give voices to each of the characters while I drove my car back and forth across town.

While Anansi Boys is sometimes billed as a sequel to American Gods, I can attest that it works just fine as a standalone as long as one is prepared to accept that the old gods live still. And I am more than used to the idea, being a fan of Rick Riordan’s.

I’m familiar with Anansi as a trickster spider god from Africa. I think it was Reading Rainbow that first introduced me to the character (but now that I’m looking, I can’t find any reference to such an episode). Much beyond that, I didn’t know. I still don’t know much, but Anansi tales are woven into the text, making any background on the character unnecessary. Gaiman even gives some of the evolution of the tales, explanations of how some people sometimes think that Anansi is a rabbit, how Anansi’s tales became African American Br’er Rabbit tales.

Because according to the novel all stories are Anansi’s, I think of this almost as much as a story about stories and the crafting of a story as it is about the way that the characters maneuver through their complicated and twisted relationships and situations, particularly because stories and songs are given such power in the novel. As a hero’s journey, as someone who reads primarily children’s and teen’s literature, it’s nice to read a bildungsroman for an adult where the everyday complications are bosses, difficult clients, worries about money, worries about adult relationships, and future in-laws. All of that is becoming more relevant to me than worries over turning in homework on time, seeing school bullies between classes, my tier in the social hierarchy, difficult teachers, or parents being unsupportive.

In this tale, Anansi dies of a heart attack while singing karaoke and flirting with young tourists in a bar in Florida. His son, Fat Charlie, who is embarrassed by his father whom he thinks made it his mission to humiliate Charlie, flies from London for the funeral. The only other attendees are a few old women, neighbors of Anansi’s and Fat Charlie’s and his mother’s when they lived in Florida. One of the older women reveals Anansi’s godhood to Fat Charlie and also reveals that Charlie has a brother about whom he has forgotten. She tells him to tell a spider if he ever wants to contact his brother.

Back in London, Fat Charlie continues at his job as an accountant for the Grahame Coats talent agency. Charlie and his fiancée Rosie continue wedding preparations, and Rosie insists that Fat Charlie should try to reach out to his brother to invite him to the wedding.

After drunkenly whispering to a spider that it would be nice if his brother would visit, Spider shows up, moves into the house, and begins an initially perhaps well-intentioned but increasing hostile takeover of Charlie’s life, house, and girlfriend.

I wish the ending of the romantic tangle had been a little less obvious.

I was mostly entwined in the story of the mystical coexisting with the everyday—and before Spider, Fat Charlie’s life is very everyday—the way that Spider’s powers manifest, the way that Tiger manifests in the world, the spirit journeys that Charlie takes with the help of the older women.

Maybe because it’s taken me so long to read a Gaiman novel, maybe because many are saying that this is one of his least, I was not as blown away by Anansi Boys as I maybe even wanted to be. I enjoyed it. I think Lenny Henry’s voices may have done much to keep this story exciting. But I didn’t love it, though I did rave when given the opportunity the morning after I’d finished it to a willing party.

I think this would be a good read for those who want to learn a little mythology without reading mythology straight—though I’m not sure why anyone would want not to read the mythology straight. I doubt Riordan will ever touch African mythology—though someone from his imprint might. I do wonder how someone from the African diaspora reacts to Gaiman’s take on their mythology. I wonder if Anansi is still a god anywhere in the world. I wonder if Gaiman should have taken on this subject, as much as I enjoy it. Most of the characters are from the Caribbean, members of the African diaspora, and to my knowledge, Gaiman is neither. He seems to have handled the mythology well, but I’m not the one to decide.

****

Gaiman, Neil. Anansi Boys. Narrated by Lenny Henry. HarperAudio-HarperCollins, 2013. Audiobook, 9 CDs. First published 2005.

This review is not endorsed by Neil Gaiman, Lenny Henry, HarperAudio, HarperCollins, or anyone involved in the production of the book or audiobook.  It is an independent, honest review by a reader.

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