Any devoted audiobook listener can attest: Spending hours in the company of a terrible reader — a shrieker, mumbler, droner, tooth whistler or overzealous thespian — is an experience that can ruin a book. A narrator’s voice is not merely a delivery system, an element extraneous to the text, but an integral one — fulfilling, enriching, injuring or sinking a book.
Many authors like to read their own books. Sometimes that’s a good thing. But too often authors lack a natural gift for voice narration. To be sure, certain authors are truly accomplished narrators, their delivery enhancing the words on the page. Among the finest are Louise Erdrich, John le Carré, Trevor Noah, Neil Gaiman and Toni Morrison.
Truly great narrators are a rare and wondrous thing: how they manage to distinguish between characters with such limberness, how they can change timbre, pitch, manner and accent from character to character. There are many candidates for the top spot, but here are three whose delivery has contributed another dimension to the silent page.
Anna Burns’ “Milkman” — winner of the Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction — is a brilliant but difficult novel, one that has stymied a number of readers who experienced it in print. Set in Belfast during the 1970s amid Northern Ireland’s Troubles, it is the sardonic first-person account of a young woman being stalked by a terrorist and held in suspicion by her own community. It opens itself when delivered by actor Bríd Brennan, a native of Northern Ireland. (Dreamscape, 14¼ hours) She captures the dialogue’s cadence wherein much of the novel’s sense lies, renders the menace palpable and conveys the narrator’s subtle humor with fitting understatement.
January LaVoy has a voice that contains multitudes, and her versatility and empathetic characterization have transformed some pedestrian novels into enjoyable entertainments. Adrian McKinty’s “The Chain” (Hachette, 10¼ hours) is far from pedestrian, but in LaVoy’s performance the chilling, suspenseful novel transcends the page. Set in present-day Massachusetts, this is the terrifying story of the abduction of a teenage girl whose kidnappers demand, in addition to money, that the girl’s mother, Rachel, kidnap another child — whose parents will be handed the same demand. Rachel’s pain, desperation and horror are urgent in LaVoy’s voice. The rest of the characters — sympathetic, skeptical, intimidating and just plain evil — troop in one by one, their personalities embodied in this extraordinary narrator’s protean voice.
Jonathan Keeble’s narrative ability, reserved and cultivated in general narrative, opens doors to the past. He is at his very finest in Tim Pears’ West Country Trilogy: “The Horseman” (Isis, 7½ hours), “The Wanders” (Isis, 8½ hours) and “The Redeemed” (Isis, 9 hours). Beginning in 1911 in Somerset, England, it is the story of Leopold, boy and man with an affinity for horses, and a rich landowner’s daughter, Charlotte, who aspires to be a veterinarian. Leonard is forced off his father’s farm in a shocking incident and wanders hither and thither, becoming slave to gypsies, farmworker, sailor, diver and horseman. Charlotte, in turn, has her own cruel tribulations. The genius of these books lies in their dramatic, detailed descriptions of work and their quiet celebration of the English countryside of a vanished era. Keeble, a master of the argot and manner of speech of the West Country, further enhances these great novels, making them among the best audiobooks I have encountered.
Minnesota native Katherine A. Powers reviews for Barnes & Noble, the Wall Street Journal, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. She writes this column monthly for the Washington Post.