Book reviews: Jane Eyre read by Juliet Stevenson is deep and velvety
Bryant and May of the Peculiar Crimes Unit bring out London’s Glory, and A Man of Genius examines how being married to a stereotypical tortured genius is no picnic
by Charlotte Brontë (read by Juliet Stevenson)
Audible Studios (audiobook)
Author anniversaries are all the rage – 2016 is, apparently, the year of both Shakespeare and Charlotte Brontë, genuinely great English-language writers separated by a couple of centuries. Brontë’s great book, Jane Eyre, is a staple of literature courses the world over. Frequently marketed as a romance – thanks to the central on-off-off-off-off-on relationship between Jane and Mr Rochester – the story is really anything but. Jane’s history is defined by tenacity and survival: orphaned, she endures an appalling step-family and a punitive school, then works as a governess for a manipulative near-psychopath, meets a cold-hearted evangelical and, Reader, wins out in the end. As befits a classic classic, there are any number of audiobooks. I plumped for Juliet Stevenson, largely because her deep, velvety tones could read the instructions for a flat pack bed and hold my attention. She catches Jane’s suppressed sadness (“dreadful to me was the raw twilight”) effortlessly. The clarity of her narration convinces of the clarity of Jane’s mind within the torment of her life. And yet she is just as good when describing the cruel comedy of Rochester’s inquisition disguised as a gipsy or the dramatic fire started by Bertha Mason on Jane’s wedding day. Listener, I loved every minute of it.
Bryant & May: London’s Glory
by Christopher Fowler (read by Tim Goodman)
Whole Story Audiobooks
Christopher Fowler’s superb series of novels starring Arthur Bryant and John May has been gleefully subverting the commonplaces of “Golden Age” crime fiction for a decade and a half. Stalwarts of the Peculiar Crimes Unit of the Metropolitan Police, Bryant and May bring their considerable experience to bear on the oddest, reality-defying cases imaginable. We get a fair few examples of this in London’s Glory, a story collection that gathers a motley crew of old, unreviewed and, even by their standards, weird cases from the middle of the 20th century. After a handy guide to the duo by Fowler himself, we can relax through 11 stories from cold storage. In The Field, this is literal: a woman lies dead on Primrose Hill. The problem? Only one set of footprints – hers – leads to the corpse. Elsewhere there are those spooky staples, the funfair freak show , and even a body found dead in a library stabbed by a dagger (though not by Colonel Mustard). The stories are also Valentines to London, a city that is constantly changing and staying the same. Tim Goodman’s stylish and stylised reading honours this with self-consciously plummy tones that are both dated and timeless. Fowler is a classic writer, in all senses of the phrase.
A Man of Genius
by Janet Todd (read by Miriam Margolyes)
Craftsman Audio Books
After a distinguished career researching everyone from Mary Shelley to Jane Austen, Janet Todd has tried her hand at that most tried-and-tested fictional genre: the Gothic. Her premise, which has kicked off movies as different as Romancing the Stone and Misery, is that an author, in this case Ann St Clair, becomes ensnared in a story worthy of her imagination. St Clair made her slightly invented-sounding name by writing cheap, popular penny dreadfuls whose success rescued her from a life of poverty: “Annabelle looked at the corpse. Hands and head separate.” Ugh. St Clair’s life, both literary and everyday, becomes entwined with that of Robert James, the sort of tortured genius that seemingly darkened every available craggy mountain circa 1819. Relocating to a vividly described Venice, the couple fall in love, only to land somewhere dark, violent and distinctly unromantic. As St Clair finds herself in over her head, she realises the image of the male genius (see Byron and Shelley) is not all it is cracked up to be. Esteemed British actress Miriam Margolyes clearly relishes the chance to read St Clair’s yeasted-up prose (“I will cross out the fluid and rotting meat,” she notes wryly). Margolyes can do James’ pompous, effete acolytes, and the ferocious desperation of James himself. An entertaining, thought-provoking historical novel beautifully read.