Children of the Spider by Imam Baksh
*disclaimer* I read this before or at least an earlier draft of it when I was a CODE Burt Award judge the year that this book won. So I’ve read and liked this book before. That’s my bias. Do I still like it on re-read? I promise to give you my honest opinion on that.
Here’s some news, though. I like it more. While I don’t remember every single detail of the original draft, I can tell it’s been through the cooker (i.e. been edited and revised). I’ve read two of the finalists from that year now and experienced this same disorientation. With the other book, which I loved and reviewed positively, it felt like something I had liked was missing (I even asked the author about it). With this one though it made a book that should be familiar feel new (adding an element of fun and surprise to the reading). The Spider didn’t taste different, but richer, with different flavours coming through to titillate my literary palate. Okay, enough with the food analogy; I’m making myself hungry and I want to finish writing this review (reaction? reflection?).
Children of the Spider is a teen/young adult novel that I would describe as adventure wrapped in Afro-Caribbean mythology. The most famous spider in the Caribbean is (sorry, not Peter Parker) but Anansi. Anansi is a demi-god, a trickster, smart and wily, fun and funny, sometimes even aspirational (see: how Tiger Tales became Anansi Tales, or Anansi and Snake, or at least half of the Anansi stories, the ones where he wins because he wins about half the time) an example of the saying that small axe can chop down big tree, but (my addendum) that axe na loyal (addendum to the addendum: that Spider loyal to itself first, last, and in the middle). For my non-Caribbean readers, you know Loki, from Norse mythology, and Marvel; well, Anansi is his West African equivalent. He is one of the few gods of African mythology to survive the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Handed down generation to generation, he has been, in my lifetime, popularized by the writings of Philip Sherlock (his Illustrated Anansi is a good read for children), and other authors (such as Ashley Bryan whose children’s book, another rec, The Dancing Granny is the production being put on by the teens in my book Musical Youth) and storytellers, including parents and school teachers.
Anansi is a central character in Children of the Spider. However, the manifestation of this character (that can be whatever it wants – demi-god, remember?) in the, in some ways, afro-futurist world of Children of the Spider, is one of the exciting revelations of this book. I don’t think that’s too much of a spoiler … but I’ll try to make it the last one.
In as non-spoilery language as I can… Children of the Spider is a high stakes adventure in which the fate of the whole world hangs in the balance. That such a high stakes tale is set in Guyana is already revolutionary because when the globe is threatened in pop culture, America and/or Europe is usually ground zero. Often, the Caribbean doesn’t even exist in such stories. This alone makes Children of the Spider groundbreaking. But this book doesn’t just chip at the surface of your expectations, it drills down and subverts a whole bunch of them. For example, the protagonists – apart from Anansi like you’ve never seen ‘him’ before, are a teenage girl who doesn’t have the words ‘give up’ in her vocabulary, a teenage boy who has no words but he not dumb, and a courageous and yet tragic street urchin; this rag tag gang is the world’s greatest hero…es? Well, they’re the ones who know the truth, so they are the world’s best bet. Only the world doesn’t know it even when it’s right in front of its eyes. The world can be stupid sometimes – maybe that’s not one of the book’s more revolutionary aspects; I mean, look what we’ve done with the place.
Speaking of place, this story being set largely in Guyana is part of its… charm… I mean the place isn’t exactly charming in your tourist brochure way. We run its dark, dirty alleys but we also traverse its jungle and feel the power of its rivers and waterfalls. We experience the comic darkness and sometimes just normal darkness of its shadier bits and the people who people it (including an ‘obeah woman’, people who bet on dog fights, people who organize dog fights, corrupt or incompetent force/s, etc.). If that isn’t enough of a clue, let me explicitly declare that it gets dark sometimes for a teen/young adult novel, but if you were able to survive children killing children for the entertainment of the masses and to maintain a corrupt social order in dark American fantasy The Hunger Games and its several bestselling (on print and screen) sequels, you’ll be okay. There is an extended scenario, I’ll admit though, that had me recoiling in horror (but again no more so than watching children kill each other…for entertainment).
Unflinching is what I’d call it. Even as it leans in to its fantasy elements, the realism is real with this one and this author unsparing in his commitment to the showing of it, to the telling of his tale. There are tight corners and close calls but what gives this book its heart (multiple beating hearts) are the characters. Believable, and at the same time unbelievable (like that other famous spider swinging off buildings in Queens). You are charmed by them (and I mean that unironically), you root for them, you care about them, you want them to win. Not because they are generic (they are decidedly not) but because the specifics of their characters are grounded in like your favourite spice. The food analogies are returning, hunger creeping back in; let me wrap up.
This is my fastest read so far for the year. I picked it up to use in my Jhohadli Summer Youth Writing Project which ran July 22nd to 26th 2019. After the workshop I kept it in my bag and would read parts of it on the bus and this weekend on and off the bus until my eyes said auntie (!), I continued reading all of it until done. It’s August 4th 2019 as I write this and I’ve got work to do. But this isn’t the kind of book you take sips of, you’ve got to jump in and hang on. It moves fast and leaves you winded. But your endorphins will thank you for it.
A good fun dark adventure that moves with agility between realism, mythology (of the West African/Caribbean variety), and fantasy (with dystopian implications). You can argue if it’s appropriate for teens if you want but since when did teens only read what was appropriate…I can bet you this, Caribbean or non-Caribbean, teen readers will find this relatable and yet somehow foreign, and will find themselves hooked from first page to last. And then after turning that last page will wonder, wait, where the sequel?
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