Reading by Ear: Good Omens

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
read by Martin Jarvis

Good Omens is one of the first adult novels I bought for myself as a wee lass that I discovered through a recommendation of sorts. It was a favorite book of Sandra Fuhr, a web comic artist whom I still follow. My mother required me to read Silas Marner before I could read the much-anticipated novel; accordingly, I remember nothing about Silas Marner to this day. Good Omens, on the other hand, has become one of my favorite books, lovingly read, reread, and purchased for friends’ birthdays. Casting around for something for Reading by Ear, I saw the audiobook for Good Omens at my library and knew it was time to revisit this old favorite.

Good Omens is, simply, a buddy comedy about Armageddon. Just when Heaven and Hell’s representatives on Earth—Crowley and Aziraphale—have decided that they quite like the place, Crowley is handed the Antichrist and told to close up shop. However, Crowley and Aziraphale aren’t going to let Earth go down without a fight and decide to do what they can to postpone the Apocalypse. But humanity isn’t totally helpless here; armed with The Nice & Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch, the only accurate book of prophecy in the world, Anathema Device is trying to piece together the end of the world as foretold by her ancestor and the unassuming Newton Pulsifer joins the Witchfinder Army on a lark. All in all, Earth might have a shot—if only they could find the Antichrist…

If you like the nonchalant wackiness of Terry Prachett’s Discworld series, you’ll enjoy the humor here. This isn’t a comedy where jokes pop up only in dialogue; the entire universe is funny without making things comically trivial. Cassette tapes left in the car for over a fortnight turn into The Best of Queen, the narrator’s kind footnotes to explain things are quite funny (including my favorite joke when I was a wee lass), and house plants can be maintained by pure intimidation. Good Omens starts (after a prologue) off by explaining that science is wrong—“[the] whole business with the fossilized dinosaur skeletons was a joke that the paleontologists haven’t seen yet” (4)—and that the world is going to end soon. It’s a comedy of errors on a cosmic scale, and, most importantly, it’s thought out and well-researched—I’ve been told that there’s some humor in here that’s even funnier to theologians. If you want to get absolutely everything out of a reading of Good Omens, might I interest you in its entry in the Annotated Prachett File? It covers differences between the American and British editions. You’ll also be probably pleased to know that the Dalek cameo remains in each.

As a collaboration between Gaiman and Prachett, it’s quite good—while you can definitely tell that Gaiman handled the darker material and Prachett the lighter, you can’t randomly point at a chapter, a character, or even a line and attribute it solely to one author or another. There’s a sweet anecdote the authors relate in the 2006 mass market paperback edition, “where they’d got together to proofread the final copy, and Neil congratulated Terry on a line that Terry knew he hadn’t written and Neil was certain he hadn’t written either” (400). While Aziraphale and Crowley, a supernatural odd couple, are the break-out stars among the cast of characters, I really enjoyed the Them (the gang composed of the unwitting Antichrist, Adam, and his three best friends) this time around, as well as the relationship between Shadwell (a strangely endearing crusty old man and the only member of the Witchfinder Army) and Madame Tracy (his middle-aged landlady, as well as a spiritualist and discreet disciplinarian); it’s both sweet and hilarious. I’m actually finding it difficult to review Good Omens, actually; I suppose this is what blinding nostalgia feels like. I am counting off for a lack of compulsive readability (which might be because I know this story so well) and a faggot-burning joke that fell absolutely flat.

The audiobook was read by Martin Jarvis, who has just the right kind of kindly but authoritative British voice for narration. He simply interjects footnotes where necessary, which makes for an interesting flow. I was quite impressed by his range for all the characters, especially the children; War is slinky and seductive, Aziraphale is suitably stuffy, and his take on Death rejects what you might expect from a character who speaks in ALL CAPS in favor of something soft and insidious. While Adam can sound too old, the tone is perfect… usually. I was a bit shocked when Jarvis gave two Japanese submarine operators extremely racist and stereotypical accents for an conversation that’s presumably in Japanese, though it’s rendered in English. It was jarring enough that I feel the need to warn for it; it’s something that’s not in the book and I’m not happy to see it in this audiobook.

Bottom line: Good Omens is a hilarious comedy of errors on a cosmic level; my one sentence summary is usually “a buddy comedy about the Apocalypse”. If you like Prachett’s sense of humor and Gaiman’s darkness, you’ll love this. The audiobook is well narrated and acted, save for Jarvis’ bizarre decision to give two Japanese characters extremely racist accents—so heads up.

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

  • Gaiman, Neil, and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens. New York: HarperTorch, 2006. Print.

7 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Good Omens

  1. I’d never read Good Omens before listening to it last fall, but I loved it on audio. I thought Jarvis did a great job. That’s a great anecdote about Gaiman and Pratchett and the line neither of them wrote; I agree that the book didn’t feel obviously split between them. I know I’ll reread this one eventually and will probably try it in print, just to see what that’s like. (For example, I didn’t realize Death speaks in all caps!)

  2. I just read this one for the first time last week (my review is going up later this month). I loved it! I gave it the same rating as you and I know it’s one I’ll re-read in the future. I may have to check out the audio next time.

  3. I loved that book–I’ll definitely check out the audiobook for our vacation this summer. Thanks for the recommendation! ANANSI BOYS is another one that really translates well to audio.

  4. I like your one-line description! That is a perfect description and I will use it forever. I think it would be fun to hear this on audiobook, even though I’m not an audiobook fan, just for all the voices and characters.

  5. This is one of my favorite reads. In the past five years or so, I’ve read it three times, and I’m positive were I to pick it up again, I would still love it.

  6. I love Good Omens, and am so glad you’ve reviewed it! However, as a Brit, I’d be disinclined to read an audiobook by Martin Jarvis, however good he might be, because the man is utterly ubiquitous over here. I’m not mad keen on his voice, either (but that’s just me).

    Sorry to pick holes, but aren’t the Japanese characters on a whaling ship, not a submarine?

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