E-/audiobook reviews: Fiction, by James Kidd

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 December, 2014, 11:19pm

Crusoe’s Daughter
by Jane Gardam
(read by Jilly Bond)

Jane Gardam's Last Friends revisited Hong Kong last year to complete a wonderful trilogy that began decades earlier with Old Filth (2004), followed by The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009). Crusoe's Daughter is a short novel first published in 1986 but new to audiobook, thanks to a lovely reading by Jilly Bond. The story stretches from 1904 to 1985, and traces the life of Polly Flint, who is orphaned before she is six and lived with Roald Dahl-esque spinster aunts in the bleak north of England. Death hangs heavy as relatives and friends come and go like the tide. What provides Polly's primary level of comfort is her imaginative relationship with Robinson Crusoe. This persists as lovers are killed in the two wars, one a poet, another a Jewish businessman who returns to his family only to be murdered in Auschwitz. Polly's connections to reality vanish one by one, until her imaginary link with Crusoe is all that's left. Narrator Bond's extraordinary voice, girlish yet somehow aged, fits Polly's resistance to time and her diminishment by it. A novel that is simple and simply extraordinary.


The Godfather
by Mario Puzo
(read by Joe Mantegna)

Mario Puzo's seminal bestseller, The Godfather, is dusted down for the digital age in this new version read by actor Joe Mantegna, who appeared in Francis Ford Coppola's underwhelming Godfather III. The reason, one assumes, is the 40th anniversary of The Godfather II, which took some of the threads of Puzo's original and wove them into brighter colours and bigger stories. If you know the movies, then much of the narrative and indeed dialogue will ring bells: smart Michael Corleone's ascent to take over father Vito's throne; wild Sonny's priapic adventures and business misadventures; the Sinatra-esque Johnny Fontane is afforded more space, but with a plot about plastic surgery that borders on misogynist. Add a horse's head, Irish lawyers, feckless brothers, casinos, drugs and lots of violence. The prose is, famously, terrible: "If I'd known so many people were going to read it," Puzo said, "I'd have written it better." Mantegna's voice swells and falls rather like a snore, from near-squeaky to a churning rumble; you will get used to it. Anyway, it was an offer I couldn't refuse.


The Children Act
by Ian McEwan
(read by Lindsay Duncan)
Random House

Having not liked much that Ian McEwan has produced since Black Dogs (1992), with the exception of On Chesil Beach (2007), his new novel, The Children Act, rather passed me by. Fiona Maye, a high court judge in her late 50s, is living in bourgeois bliss with husband Jack - until he announces he has fallen for a woman half Fiona's age. McEwan's not McEwan if this dimension isn't enhanced and expanded by a grand narrative with widescreen potential. In 2005's Saturday it was 9/11, in Sweet Tooth (2012) it was the cold war. Here it's about a young boy dying of leukaemia, whose parents' Jehovah's Witness faith forbids a blood transfusion. Instead of a nuanced relationship both comfortable and numb, we get a subject that's treated with more perspective in House, MD. My objections are softened a little by Lindsay Duncan, whose velvety voice manages to convey Fiona's intelligence, fastidiousness and weariness at what life and the law is throwing at her. It is a novel to argue with, but one I felt the novel lost.