A wittily charming novel, brimming with likeable characters, and narrated in always wonderful, and often hilarious, fashion by Lenny Henry.
I’m going a bit different today. This review is not based on the book, per se, but rather on the narrated version by Lenny Henry. Audiobooks have not been something that I have been enamoured with. At least not until recently. Leading such a busy life, working full time, writing in every spare hour I can muster, I was finding it hard to read as much as I would like. And so, after many suggestions from people I know, I gave audiobooks a chance so that I could fit in some stories while I was on the go. I’m not going to go in to detail on my overall impression of audiobooks, rather leaving that for a blog post a bit later down the line. What I will say is that Lenny Henry’s narration of an already funny book is absolutely hilarious. As in, laugh out loud funny.
Let’s quickly start with an overview of the story. For those of you who have read American Gods, you will be familiar with the character of Anansi, the cynical, snarky, wily trickster God from African Lore, also known as the Spider. Anansi Boys is a more light-hearted offshoot of American Gods and is based on the two sons of Anansi (or Mr Nancy as he is sometimes called). After the death of Anansi, his son, Fat Charlie, discovers that he has a brother, Spider, who suddenly intrudes on his drab London life, sending it spiralling out of control, affecting his job, his relationship, and leads him head long in to the fury of the spited god, Tiger, who is bitter over his past treatment by Anansi.
The story is full of Gaiman’s now famous quirks. Each character has a trait that will make them very different to any you have read before. Fat Charlie is that loveable loser who is not quite as useless as he sometimes seems. He is beaten down by his standoffish fiancée and berated by her angry mother. He is mistreated by his slimy boss and struggles to confront the machinations of his carefree brother. But as the story progresses, he shows a unique strength of character that is born from his rather outlandish circumstances. His story keeps you hooked as he journeys through the world of mortals and gods and tries to rid his life of his newly found, and burdensome, brother.
Spider is the antithesis of his brother. Where Fat Charlie is weighted by his real-world problems, Spider is carefree and selfish. He sees something he wants, and he takes it. Rife through him is his father’s mischief, only it is untempered by youth. He is a provocateur, a troublemaker, a general nuisance. This childish aplomb makes him initially come across as an antagonist, but later his innate goodness is clear for all to see. He is very different to Fat Charlie. His goodness is buried underneath heavy layers, but nonetheless it is there. Through magic and mysticism their worlds are entwined in more ways than either realise.
As is always the case with Gaiman’s characters, the antagonists stand alone. From Fat Charlie’s weasel-like boss, Grahame Coates, to the ever-put-upon god, Tiger, who had suffered greatly at the hands of Anansi and is eager for revenge. Grahame Coats is the sleazy stereotype of the dodgy businessman, who has a penchant for embezzlement and framing our loveable hero. He goes by both names. Not Grahame. Not Mr Coats. But Grahame Coats. And he loves going around expressing his portmanteau catchphrase “most deficertainly”, which is as annoying as the character himself. But when I say annoying, I mean in the ‘love to hate him’ kind of way. At first, he seems harmless. He’s the David Brent type boss who loves to assert his authority and think he is clever, but as we dig deeper in to the character, we find a far more callous and dangerous heart.
Our other antagonist, Tiger, is somewhat more understandable in his antagonism. For years he had endured the mischief of Anansi’s tricks. Make no mistake, Tiger had always been vicious, but also viewed as majestic and noble, whereas Anansi was something of the village idiot. After one particular trick by Anansi went too far, resulting in Tiger killing his own grandmother and suddenly becoming viewed as the new village idiot, Tiger vowed revenge on Anansi and all of his offspring. Tiger carries more of an obvious threat than Grahame Coats, and proves throughout that he too can be cunning.
Beyond the characters, lies something more involving in the story. It is not just how each of them unfold through the narrative, or even how the story itself progresses, but in the little details. The stories of Anansi’s tricks and the tales he so loves to tell. The depth of the gods portrayed in such subtle manners. The beauty of a song and its power. Everything adds to an aura of mysticism and magic that is engaging from start to finish and leads you to believe that you are embroiled in a world of gods.
And then we have that something different. The talents of Lenny Henry. He is what makes this special and, in my opinion, he makes the audiobook the must-have version of the story. His tone carries the humour intended and his impressions of old African women are excellent. If there is a negative to the story it is one that is common in Gaiman’s work, and that is the slightly rushed ending. Everything seems to culminate all too quickly. This is mitigated somewhat by how Henry carries the narration, but without that I think it would appear to be an afterthought considering the quality of everything that came before.
This a charming little story. It’s self-contained and there is not even a scent of epic about it. And that is a positive, for it is a nice change to revel in the feuds of a decidedly unconventional family, and follow their trials and tribulations as they overcome both earthly and godly obstacles. Narrated with ease and powered by Lenny Henry’s charm and charisma, this is a must listen for audiobook fans, and even those who are dubious about their impact.