Books

Minnie Driver to Miriam Toews — a round-up of the best audio books

Finding myself bed-bound recently with the dreaded Covid, audio books were an extra salvation — aching eyes ruled out reading print for a few days, and even the most frivolous corners of Netflix felt too taxing. But I did want to be engaged rather than merely distracted, and lifted, even temporarily, from the doldrums. What to pour into my ears?

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Cue the absolute delight that is Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry (Penguin Audio, 11hrs 56mins), a debut novel by a former copywriter who, at the age of 64, has a hit on her hands that is currently being adapted into an AppleTV series. The audio version is read by British actor Miranda Raison, whose challenge is not only to deliver the perfect American accent but, more importantly, to animate a story that careers between tragedy and comedy via science and the frequently bitter fight for some approximation of equality for women.

Raison hits just the right note, exuberantly inhabiting the novel’s central character, Elizabeth Zott, a dedicated research scientist in the almost exclusively male milieu of 1960s academic America. Zott is a cracking protagonist — strikingly single-minded, often socially awkward, and fiercely determined to follow her chosen path, even as it deviates into unexpected celebrity when she becomes a television star. But what makes this audio book so beguiling is the narrator’s facility with a whole array of minor characters, from the arrogant boss who fires Elizabeth as soon as she is pregnant to the spiteful women colleagues who back up the status quo. All in all, just what the doctor ordered.

There are more redoubtable women in Miriam Toews’s Fight Night (Faber & Faber, 6hrs 24 mins), which will come as no surprise to fans of the Canadian writer. Throughout her career, Toews has drawn heavily on her upbringing in a strict Mennonite community and the grievous losses that her family has suffered. Although her new novel accords its characters different names, those who have read previous works by Toews, such as A Complicated Kindness and the heart-rending All My Puny Sorrows will feel a degree of familiarity when they meet Fight Night‘s eight-year-old Swiv, her heavily pregnant mother and her irrepressible, filterless grandmother. The novel takes the form of letters that Swiv writes to her absent father describing the travails ands that the three women face, including triumph eviction by the landlord they call Jay Gatsby and grandma’s frequent health crises.

Toews’s particular talent is to weave the mundane and comic details of everyday life into a story that tackles complex questions about how we suffer, and how we process love and grief. In this reading, her daughter, the actor and writer Georgia Toews, narrates with a wonderful deadpan humour, imbuing Swiv’s observations about the adult world with a mixture of stoicism and dismay. The narrative’s fragmented structure means that these sharp dispatches from the frontline of family life feel like a series of aural vignettes that slowly resolve into a composite picture.

Over in the world of apparently real life, the novelist DBC Pierre’s Big Snake Little Snake (Cheerio, 4hrs 26 mins) takes the listener on a quite wild journey to Trinidad and Tobago, where Pierre has gone — ostensibly — to make a film starring a parrot. But, as he tells us in his gravelly, quietly sardonic tones, his voyage becomes one of random encounters, adventure unexpecteds and a thrilling intellectual inquiry into the seductive nature of risk. What, he asks, lies beyond the calculation of odds? It would be a stretch to say he ever gets near to answering the question, but listening to him recounting his traveler’s tales is a good substitute.

And finally, the actor Minnie Driver has eschewed conventional soup-to-nuts autobiography in her memoir, Managing Expectations (Manilla Press, 6hours 51 mins), opting instead to provide a number of snapshots from childhood to adult life. Naturally, she narrates herself, homing in on the episodes that have shaped her life. These include the most extraordinary occasion on which she was banished from a holiday in Barbados for being rude to her father’s new girlfriend, and flew alone to the UK via a night, aged 11, at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami.

Memoir often proves amenable to audio adaptation, and Driver is brilliant at modulating her tone to capture the bemusement and outrage of childhood, the challenges of trying to navigate Hollywood, and the gradual acceptance that adulthood and middle age bring. The chapter in which, attempting to mimic her older sister, the teenage driver decides on a whim to have her unruly hair short in a down-at-heel French holiday resort, is worth listening for alone.

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