For some readers, listening to a work of literature seems like a lazy way out. Not exactly like watching the movie instead of reading the book for school, but maybe next door to it.
Quite a few audiobooks though, are recorded by some of the best actors around. Artists with classical stage and voice training who know what they are doing. Combine talent like this with a good book and the result can be wonderful. Here are a few of my favourites.
Middlemarch by George Eliot – read by Juliet Stevenson
I am starting at the top. Stevenson delivers the perfect narration for this classic; no one need ever try again. It is no small undertaking. The novel has a massive cast and takes its time to fully develop the complicated individuals who populate Middlemarch. Stevenson distinguishes the voice of each character only enough for us to know who is speaking, never lapsing into a performance. Writing in the Los Angeles Review of Books, critic Laurie Winer says of Juliet Stevenson “The lilt of her neutral voice is so close to the soul of Eliot — reasoned, patient, seeing everything, missing nothing.”
You can listen to a sample at the Amazon website and catch Stevenson reading Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 on YouTube.
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane – read by Stephen Rhea
Seamus Deane’s novel about growing up, and out of, Northern Ireland in the 1950s is realised perfectly by Stephen Rhea’s droll, understated performance. This is a beautiful book, with the intensity of remembered experience and moments of pure joy in the language. For the maths class scene alone – once read, never forgotten – this is worth the price of admission.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – read by Susannah Harker.
There are so many truly bad readings of Jane Austen they (almost) outnumber the bad films. The readings seem cursed by a belief among narrators that one’s very poshest, most English voice must be clearly declaimed for each and every character. Awful. The best audio versions are said to be by Juliet Stevenson and this is probably true. Susannah Harker’s Sense and Sensibility, though, is pretty special. Her measured tone adds little in expression and does not need to, taking, like Austen, the storyteller’s role and keeping up the pace. Harker has a lighter, perhaps more youthful tone than Stevenson, and this suits the lighter material of this novel nicely. Sadly, this appears to be the only of Austen’s novels recorded by Susannah Harker.
1984 by George Orwell – read by Samuel West
All of the Samuel West audiobooks I have heard have been very good but this is his best. West is an actor blessed with a great voice and it is used to wonderful effect here. His Winston is almost always on edge. O’Brien is assured, urbane and menacing. Somehow West gets both Julia’s voice and her pragmatic character just right. Inevitably, this is not an easy book to listen to at times, but a rewarding one nonetheless.
Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds – read by John Lee
And now for something completely different. This is hard science fiction, but there are wonderfully drawn characters here too. Reynolds is famous for creating strong female characters and much of this book follows the growing relationship between two very different women, Ana Khouri and Ilia Volyova. John Lee’s gift for accents shines here. His authoritative narration provides both weight and wry wit to the action and much entertainment in delivering the dialog that sparks between the two women. Great fun.