Reading by Ear: Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
read by Lenny Henry

Anansi Boys was one of the first novels I specifically went out and bought that wasn’t a Harry Potter book or a FoxTrot anthology. (Yes, that’s all I read as a child.) I’d already read and loved American Gods—that first chapter stunned wee Clare into a kind of reverent silence, which was not easy to do—and when I discovered Anansi Boys existed via an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I hied myself down to the Books-a-Million and bought myself a copy. I was so careful with books as a kid; I remember reading this only at night, right before bed, so I wouldn’t damage the gorgeous cover.

Anansi Boys tells the story of Fat Charlie Nancy, so named because his father called him that when he was young and it stuck, like everything his father did. Fat Charlie, born in America but raised in England, is a quiet and timid man plagued with embarrassment, no thanks to his father, who delights in tormenting him, even in his method of death. When Mr. Nancy dies, Fat Charlie flies home to attend the funeral, where he’s told that he has a brother he never knew about called Spider. On a whim, Fat Charlie contacts Spider, but when his brother shows up at his doorstep, his life turns upside down in every arena. It’s a world of small gods, powerful singing, and leggy ghosts, the world of Anansi Boys.

Anansi Boys and American Gods are a bit of a matched set. Obviously, Anansi Boys is a sequel to American Gods—Mr. Nancy makes a cameo appearance in the climactic gathering, I think—but the two are rather like siblings. American Gods is dark, vast, and brooding (in a good way, not like a teenager with an attitude problem); Anansi Boys is bright, good-hearted, and clear. American Gods concerns itself with nothing less than the soul of America (interesting choice, for a British author); Anansi Boys is about family, albeit a supernatural one. At the end of the day, it’s a novel about parents and their children, and how to shoulder your parents’ idiosyncrasies and handle being your parent’s child while embracing your heritage. Unlike Level Up, a recent read that deals with similar issues, it’s not just focused on fathers and sons—Rosie, Fat Charlie’s fiancee, grows closer to her own formidable mother as Fat Charlie and Spider deal with their father.

I’ve always remembered Anansi Boys as fundamentally about songs, which is actually a minor motif throughout the novel instead of a major one. I’ve also always remembered Anansi Boys as a particularly humorous book, an impression that held up. Fans of Good Omens will find similar, albeit less wacky, material here. And I’ve had poor luck with Neil Gaiman recently, so it was nice to see him at the top of his game with the snarky but gentle narrator, weird but logical shenanigans, and a deeper, darker undercurrent to keep things from getting too flippant. Again, despite the grand scale, it’s really a story about family and heritage, so there are some actual stakes here, on top of the more ordinary stakes of danger. So much goes on in the novel that I’m hesitant to go into further detail to spoil you, but suffice it to say that Graham Coates, the villain of the piece, manages to be both pathetically funny and dangerous.

British actor Lenny Henry narrates, and narrates stunningly. I’m shocked that this is the only audiobook he’s done, because he’s an absolute master at it. The narrator’s voice is calm and bemused, and the characters have not only distinctive voices (with respect paid to regional dialects, which I quite liked), but distinctive attitudes. It’s more acting than reading aloud, which I always love, and really works here. His voice for Spider is particularly dead-on, and his Anansi is just delightful. I’m giggling just thinking of some of the Anansi stories in his Anansi voice; it’s really a fantastic marriage of narrator and novel. While I always recommend going for a hard copy first, due to my own biases, this is an audiobook that could stand on its own on the strength of Henry’s narration. (Interestingly, Henry played Fat Charlie and Spider in the disastrous BBC World Service radio adaptation of the novel, the one that made Gaiman willing to adapt Anansi Boys to the screen himself. I’ve got no further news on a film adaptation beyond Gaiman turning in a script two years ago.)

I also feel like I should point that Anansi Boys, which naturally has a mostly black cast, only gives racial tags to white characters, which I thoroughly appreciated.

Bottom line: Anansi Boys is a good-hearted, funny, and supernatural exploration of the bonds between parents and children, by looking at Fat Charlie Nancy dealing with the death of his father, who wasn’t just Mr. Nancy. Lenny Henry’s narration is an absolute marvel. Well worth the effort!

I rented this audiobook from the public library.

13 thoughts on “Reading by Ear: Anansi Boys

  1. Have you had a chance to listen to Neil Gaiman narrate one of his own books? I find his stories sometimes just miss the mark with me, but I’ve yet to be disappointed with his self-narrated audiobooks. It’s pure magic to me. In fact, the reason why I haven’t grabbed the audiobooks for Anansi Boys is that I don’t want to be disappointed by NOT having Neil reading it. Based on your praise for Lenny Henry, though, I might just be picking this up in the very near future…

  2. A film adaptation would be so much fun! Oh I wonder who they would get to play Spider, because I am preemptively in love with that actor. I really want that to happen ASAP.

  3. I listened to this one… oh gosh, six(?) years ago, and the narration has completely escaped my mind in the intervening time. But now that I realize that it was Lenny Henry (and know who that is, which I didn’t at the time), that just seems like a wonderful fit.

  4. I have moments when I think this might be my favourite of his books. To me it’s not the fathers and sons theme that stands out so much (though it’s definitely there), but all the things the book has to say about how telling stories is intrinsically linked with being human.

  5. Pingback: Review: Sister Mine | The Literary Omnivore

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