Originally published: 2005, U.S.
Rating: 4 (Recommended Reading)
Can magical things happen today in our everyday lives? In his critically acclaimed novel Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman adds some elements of the fantastic to the lives of ordinary characters. Set in modern day England and Florida, the story focuses on Fat Charlie Nancy and his family as Charlie discovers his connection to the story god, Anansi. Fat Charlie—as he is called by everyone, even his fiancée—begins the novel knowing nothing about his father, Anansi the spider, the fact that he has a brother, or the secret that Fat Charlie’s boss is hiding, but by the end of the novel, Charlie finds himself standing up to his stage fright, in a complex relationship with his brother, and narrowly escaping death.
The genre of Anansi Boys better described as magical realism than fantasy. While fantasy involves a made-up world (no matter how earth-like it is), magical realism relies on merging magic with the real world of today. The magical realism movement comes from Latin America and includes authors such as Julio Cortázar and Gabriel García Márquez, but the scope has widened to international writers in recent years. In Gaiman’s book, the magical realism is found in characters who are humans as well as gods. Fat Charlie’s family is connected to Anansi the spider, the keeper of stories in West African folklore. He also meets Tiger, who can look like a man or a tiger, an enemy of Anansi. I am personally a big fan of magical realism, and I think this book uses it well in order to give the reader a familiar context—modern-day Earth—while also providing the escape of reading about magical events. For example, a person is killed in the novel but continues to exist as a ghost, and the reader is able to follow her story as she adjusts to being a ghost and tries to avenge her killer.
The only reason this book is rated a 4 and not a 5 for me is that it is not one that I will probably re-read throughout my life. While I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, as odd as it can get, I think the one experience of reading it will be enough. It may be that I just prefer other types of magical realism that are set more in the past, like Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude set in a small Latin American town or Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children about children born on the eve of Indian independence. If the mix of a modern setting and an ancient African folktale appeals to you, then you will greatly enjoy Gaiman’s book.
The bottom line is that if you want a modern book filled with mystery, murder, revenge, and a bit of conjuring, Anansi Boys is for you; it will keep you entertained until the end. If you’ve never tried magical realism before, Gaiman has created a gratifying first taste. And if you are familiar with magical realism, try Gaiman’s new spin on the genre.