Anansi Boys, by Neil Gaiman

An exhilarating, magical world tour with two knockabout brothers

Kim Newman
Wednesday 05 October 2005 00:00 BST

American Gods, Gaiman's previous novel, was rooted in Norse mythology. This work, which seems to have grown from the seed of the pun in the title, deals with the African trickster figure of Anansi, at once an industrious spider and a human slacker. British-raised Fat Charlie Nancy attends the funeral in Florida of his estranged father, who stuck him with a nickname that has lingered even after he has grown out of chubbiness. He is given a folkloric hint which summons his even more estranged, barely remembered brother, Spider, to pop up in his drab London life.

At once African, American and British, Fat Charlie is the kind of lovable loser who often figures in comedy films, with the promise that his miseries in the first act will be compounded in the second only for everything to turn around at the end, leaving him deservedly happier. Fat Charlie is henpecked by his standoffish fiancée, despised by her monstrous mother, and mistreated by an evil boss (Gaiman creates villains with a glee that makes them outshine his virtuous characters) who winds up framing him for fraud. He drifts through a mundane life that becomes more exhilarating and terrifying when his magical, irresponsible brother (who is also an aspect of himself) shows up and wreaks havoc.

This book being a product of Gaiman's eat-all-the-soft-centres-at-once mind, Anansi Boys keeps flitting magically around the world. The brothers do riffs on African stories, play farcical games, and make funny observations. It's a shorter, swifter book than American Gods, developing Gaiman's preoccupations with the strangeness of family ties as it revisits his preferred plot about a humdrum fellow pulled out of his rut into a world of wonders by a charismatic trickster.

After the novel, there are DVD-like add-ons: a "deleted scene", pages from Gaiman's notes, an interview and "reading group discussion questions". The jury is still out on whether these add to the experience or fill extra pages with a smugness that the book otherwise works hard to avoid.

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