Book reviews: new audiobooks of Jane Austen and Edward Lear, and a new festive novel from Matt Haig
Rosamund Pike reads Pride and Prejudice like she was born to it, Derek Jacobi is the perfect voice for beloved Learish nonsense, and Haig does for Santa what Christopher Nolan did for Batman
Pride and Prejudice
by Jane Austen (read by Rosamund Pike)
Rosamund Pike’s narration of Jane Austen’s peerless comic novel of manners is the latest A-list audiobook performance, following fellow thesps Matt Dillon, Colin Firth, Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep. Pike, perhaps most famous for her Oscar-nominated role in Gone Girl, played Jane Bennet in a 2005 film adaption, so she should be perfect for Austen’s pitiless exposure of hypocrisy and pomposity, of love and money. It helps too that her voice – as cool and crisp as slightly frozen snow – is recognisably Austenish. Pike reads the famous opening like she was to the manor born. Her Mrs Bennet is simpering rather than ogreish, which took a little getting used to, but her Mr Bennet is lugubrious and nicely measured; her Lizzie and Jane are also suitably impressive, but what surprises is her attention to the vital supporting cast. Charlotte Lucas is understated but sympathetic; the uncontrollable Lydia is funny and annoying; Miss Bingley nastily civil. Much depends on the toothsome to and fro between Mr Darcy and his reluctant belle Elizabeth. If Darcy lacks a little punch, the head of steam they build up billows most agreeably indeed.
The Finest Nonsense of Edward Lear
by Edward Lear (read by Derek Jacobi)
Rosamund Pike is all very well, but if it’s theatrical credentials you are after, few can hold a candle to Derek Jacobi. One of the finest stage actors of all time, Jacobi can send up his reputation as a revered Shakespearean: having won rave reviews for his King Lear, he now turns to another Lear, Edward, and a rather different form of poetry. No tragedy here, only limitless comic invention. He begins with Lear’s most famous work: The Owl and the Pussycat. After a slightly hesitant opening he gets into the swing of things. Jacobi is happy to ham things up when the nonsense reaches a crescendo: “And there in a wood a piggywig stood.” His Duck upbraiding a hopping Kangaroo is full of dandyish fun: “My life is a bore in this nasty pond and I long to go out in the world beyond.” Lear’s limericks are a delight, Jacobi relishing the rhythmic inevitability and the bizarre surprises: nests in beards, long noses, men gowns. The Nonsense Alphabet is charming and whimsical. Perfect for children of all ages.
A Boy Called Christmas
by Matt Haig
Matt Haig is a writer of many talents. His considerable body of work includes dark, adult literary dissections of fatherhood, mildly surreal fables about human nature, a bestselling non-fiction memoir about his depression and a number of works aimed at younger readers. His latest mixes a little of each. A Boy Called Christmas does for Santa Claus what Christopher Nolan did for Batman – tracing the creation of a myth, from childhood trauma (the loss of his parents) to eventual triumph. Our hero is Nikolas, a “happy boy” who has already had a hard life. His mother died after being attacked by a bear and falling down a well. His poor, morose father struggled to give his son anything beyond a sentimental turnip until a chance encounter sends him off on a quest to find whether elves really exist. Nikolas is left to struggle, first with his aunt Carlotta, and then a quest of his own to find his father. Haig’s playful tale injects new life into a familiar story. He asks whether we are still reading, offers lists of Christmas cheer and ultimately an upbeat ending that has survived genuine sadness. Kids will love it, but parents everywhere won’t mind repeating readings either. Extras: lovely illustrations by Chris Mould.