Audiobook reviews: Thandie Newton reads Jane Eyre; obscure early Jane Austen work is flawed
Newton can’t compete with the sheer velvety smoothness of Juliet Stevenson’s 2009 reading of the Charlotte Brontë classic, but she sounds more convincing as Jane Eyre
Jane Eyre (Audiobook)
by Charlotte Brontë (read by Thandie Newton)
Earlier this month, I reviewed Juliet Stevenson’s superb reading of Jane Eyre from 2009. I should have waited a little longer. The bicentenary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth is not only giving Shakespeare 400 a run for its money, it has inspired a new audiobook by A-listish actress Thandie Newton, who herself gave Tom Cruise a run for his money in Mission Impossible II.
While her voice can’t quite compete with Stevenson’s for sheer velvety smoothness, she possibly sounds more convincing as Jane Eyre. Her voice is more brittle and delicate, yet with an unmistakable steel and determination. Her reading is fluent and extremely easy on the ear, although she tends to approach gravitas (in the description of a snowy counterpane for example) where perhaps none exists, or not yet. This works splendidly when she teases out Jane’s own unease later in the ‘Red Room’: ‘The room was chill, because it seldom has a fire.’ Newton stresses ‘chill’, then pauses, allowing the listener to consider whether the room’s chilliness is due to spookier reasons than the lack of fire. The real test for Newton is Rochester, whose jesting flippancy regularly verges on the cruel. Newton does just fine, underplaying rather than attempting her own Timothy Dalton. An attractive, if not quite great reading.
Lady Susan (Audiobook)
by Jane Austen (read by Various)
Lady Susan is something of a curiosity: an early novella by Jane Austen read by the Online Theatre Company. That ‘narrators’ plural is important. Written as early as 1794, this short epistolary novel, which Austen never saw fit to publish herself, employs several voices. At the centre of plot and narration is an unusually frank and devious heroine, whom Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin described as ‘an adult woman whose intelligence and force of character are greater than those of anyone she encounters’. Lady Susan Vernon is a widow almost after Oscar Wilde’s heart. ‘The most accomplished Coquette in England,’ she manipulates everyone to gain her ends: marriage, as always in Austen, both for herself and her daughter Frederica. The two begin and end as rivals, with Lady Susan as contemptuous as an Austen villain about her flesh and blood. The readers vary. Elizabeth Klett’s Lady Susan is excellent, sounding like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, but might just everywhere else on her body. Her sister-in-law Mrs Vernon not only suffers by comparison to the electric Lady S, but because of a more hesitant reader. Mr de Courcy slight overdoes the Regency swagger, but somehow this suits a work that is short, sharp but flawed.
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers
by Max Porter (read by Jot Davis)
Grief Is the Thing with Feathers was one of 2015’s more striking debut novels – a slight-looking, unnerving but often moving meditation on life after death. The death is that of Dad’s wife; the life is ‘Dad’s’ and that of his two sons. While the title alludes to Emily Dickinson’s famous Hope is the thing with feathers, the real poet on Porter’s mind is Ted Hughes. Hughes is not only the subject of Dad’s scholarly magnum opus, he is the dark, mourning presence given hideous form by Crow, a giant bird signifying the darkness enveloping the family. The novel’s fractured structure and prose, both of which owe a more recent debt to Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing, is a challenge for any narrator. The story swims back and forth in time, from reality to fantasy. The language can be tender or violently phantasmagoric: ‘the beak hurled down hammer-hard into the demon’s skull with a crack and a spurt then smashed onwards down through brain, fluid and membrane, into squirting spine, vertebra snap, vertebra crunch, vertebra nibbled and spat…’ Jot Davis reads superbly, and with real sensitivity, changing pace and tone at the drop of a comma to be compassionate, melancholy, angry or despairing. A real audio masterpiece.