Category Archives: Audio books

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

The AnchoressThe Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I”m not sure where I read that most of the recent literary prize winners by women had historical settings. The writer made this point as a negative criticism, noting that as a society we can’t seem to engage with or acknowledge contemporary women’s lives and ongoing inequalities between men and women.

On the one hand, the writer has a point: doesn’t an historical setting ensure the ongoing injustices of gender discrimination are always elsewhere? Doesn’t awarding these stories our highest prizes serve as a kind of self-congratulatory pat on our collective backs that we’ve left the dark ages behind and are basking in the glow of our enlightened ways?

I remember listening to television scholar, Charlotte Brunsdon, defend historical drama on the BBC once. She argued that historical drama, whatever the setting, will always be an interpretation of a previous era through a contemporary lens. So, if an historical drama has scenes of rape within marriage (this was her example, I can’t remember the specific program), then, given every representation is a matter of deliberate choices made by writers and so forth, this is a way of addressing a form of violence still experienced by many women today.

I am sympathetic to this interpretation, not least because Brunsdon is an alumna of the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, whose methods and legacy inform my own approach to texts and interpretation, but also because, well, no one seems to have any trouble with this very argument when discussing The Crucible: it was too dangerous to talk about the McCarthy trials when they were happening, so Miller turned to history, the Salem witch trials, to tell his allegorical tale.

Perhaps there’s still a criticism to be made about awarding prizes to predominantly historical novels. If we still need to hide behind allegory, then are we still stuck in the 1950s? We do seem to have finally gotten over the inevitable suicide of heroines that characterised the end of many a nineteenth century novel, so perhaps soon more awards will go to stories about contemporary women’s lives.

What does any of this rambling have to do with The Anchoress? Well, these were my thoughts as I finished listening to the last chapters of the Bolinda Audiobook edition, read by Madeleine Leslay. These thoughts were further prompted by my frequent scouring of available audiobooks to borrow from my local library. Sometimes I just want a novel set in contemporary Australia and I’m often surprised by how difficult they can be to find. I suppose I’m trying to find some way to think about the times I live in.

In the end, I did find a way to think through contemporary issues, although it did take a while. After reading about a third of The Anchoress, it put me very much in mind of Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. For some this would be a very high recommendation, but that’s less the case for me.

Burial Rites and The Anchoress share an isolated central female character who has been ill-treated by a manipulative romantic interest and is subject to the whims and prejudices of authority: the law and the church. As much as Kent embellished on the life of her heroine, she was ultimately bound by Agnes’s fate; conversely, while Cadwallader draws on her research into Saint Margaret, Three Methods For Reading The Thirteenth Century Seinte Margerete: Archetypal, Semiotic, And Deconstructionist, her character, Sarah, is fictional and so she is afforded agency.

I don’t want to discount the interest of the historical specificities in The Anchoress. The entire concept of a woman living her life in a small room with locked doors praying to God on behalf of others is fascinating. There is so much to learn and be curious about. The physical effects on the body of forced sedentariness and a lack of exposure to sunlight are quite alarming. I also very much appreciated the insight into the work done to produce books in medieval time: a collaboration between a scribe and an ‘illuminator’ or illustrator.

Overall, what eventually captured my attention in this book was Sarah’s arc. In spite of her seclusion, she forms relationships with the community she serves, if somewhat reluctantly at first. Her arc is matched by that of Ranaulf, the young monk and scribe charged to be her confessor. He is as isolated as she, if not physically, then certainly emotionally. Both are gently prodded into friendships with villagers and colleagues. Here, special mention must be made of Eleanor or Ellie, a guileless village girl who alternately charms and annoys them both into submission.

The other main aspect of this novel that elevated it in my estimation was the way both Sarah and Ranaulf engaged with and questioned the teachings they inherited through the church, in the face of their own and other characters lived experience. There is a refreshing spirit at the core of The Anchoress that doesn’t eschew intellect or heart, but shows how each requires the other in order to live the very best of lives.

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The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

The EngagementThe Engagement by Chloe Hooper
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What a strange book; I really have no idea what to make of it.

The Engagement tells the story of Liese, an English woman who is retrenched from her job as an architect, who moves to Australia and finds work as a real estate agent in Melbourne. In this job she meets Alexander, a member of the squattocracy, a bachelor looking for a pied à terre. They have sex in one of the properties she shows him; he concludes her real estate job is a front for her prostitution and so he pays her. She sees his misunderstanding as an opportunity to pay her substantial debts and so she doesn’t disabuse him. Their relationship and the plot get murkier from there.

The blurb on the Bolinda audio edition says ‘…this is a psychological thriller for the modern age, one which explores the snares of money and love, and the dark side of the erotic imagination’. I don’t know. Perhaps. If Alexander’s desire to simultaneously hire, rescue, and punish Liese is to be believed. Liese is an unreliable narrator, and ‘psychological’ seems to mean someone–Alexander? His mother? His sister? Liese?–has a vaguely-defined mental illness that is expressed through violence and manipulation.

The Goodreads summary compares The Engagement to Surrealist Luis Buñel’s film Belle de Jour. On the one hand, there is certainly a part-time prostitute character; on the other hand, I’m not convinced that deliberate obfuscation about key artefacts, such as the damning letters and photographs addressed to Alexander and Liese respectively, is the same as the philosophical resolution to Séverine and Pierre Serizy’s intimacy issues. It just feels as though Hooper didn’t really know how to resolve the various threads she set in motion.

The audio book was read well by Jane Nolan, if with some often-distracting long vowels.

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Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island)

The Brides of Rollrock IslandThe Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first encountered the selkie legend in the Irish-American film, The Secret of Roan Innish (Sayles 1994). The notion of seal brides all seemed terribly magical and romantic, if ultimately sad. Remembering this film was part of what attracted me to Sea Hearts (The Brides of Rollrock Island); I was intrigued to learn more about these curious brides who emerge from the sea to bear the children of men, only to become increasingly forlorn for their sea lives, land-bound as long as they are separated from their skins.

Reading Lanagan’s interpretation of the selkie legend, I found myself thinking about the origins of this fantastical creature. Was it first offered as an explanation for an unexpected dark-eyed child to hide the sin of adultery? To explain a wife’s desertion of an unhappy marriage? What are the stories of migration, slavery, and inter-racial liaisons that gave rise to selkie lore? Lanagan’s story doesn’t openly engage with any of the questions I’ve posed here, however it does pursue a story through the selkie legend that I found equally intriguing.

Miskaella is a misshapen and outcast child from a large family. While her family take turns to taunt and shun her, the old folk in the Rollrock community recognise and fear her affinity with the island’s seal population. As Miskaella comes of age and understands she is condemned to a single life, she decides to exploit her ability to summon the seals to secure her fortune and status by procuring wives for the island’s men.

Miskaella’s story is the beginning of a curve on a spiral of selkie legend, a tale of four generations of the Rollrock community that explores the lot of women as spinsters, mothers, wives, and daughters across the ages. It is sad, thought-provoking, beautiful, and hopeful.

I listened to the Bolinda/ABC audiobook edition, read just wonderfully by Eloise Oxer and Paul English.

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The Man Who Loved Children

The Man Who Loved ChildrenThe Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Henrietta (Henny) and Samuel Pollitt both knew before they married that they never should have married, yet, bound by social convention and the need to secure a dowry, they did marry, and so, perhaps, the trajectory of their lives could only be the tragedy that plays out in this novel.

Henny and Sam’s thwarted expectations of life and marriage have repercussions beyond their individual disappointments to affect their children: Louise (Louie), Sam’s child from his halcyon first marriage, and the five children Henny subsequently bears. The children grow up in the cesspool of this bitter liaison, nurtured on their parents’ mutual violence.

I’m not entirely sure what Jonathan Franzen is talking about when he says this book is funny. Perhaps he’s referring to the moments where Henny’s threats seem like so much hyperbole, or when Sam’s baby-talk to his children descends to utter ridiculousness , but beneath that there is so much despair and narcissism, for Henny and Sam respectively, that for me every one of these moments contained a well of horror.

The Man Who Loved Children is a frightening, moving portrait of dysfunctional family life. Here, it is read by Fiona Press who, despite some distracting pronunciations of words (piahno), ensures we never wholly condemn any of the characters, even while deploring some of their actions.

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Burial Rites

Burial RitesBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a note at the end of this novel that says it’s an attempt to make more ambiguous the historical record of the central figure, Agnes Magnusdottir. I think the outcome of the characterisation is far less subtle than that; indeed Agnes is rendered a victim of poverty, circumstance, a particularly manipulative lover, and blinkered judiciary–far from the ‘inhumane witch stirring up murder’ of record . By now it’s a frustratingly familiar story, but it’s one that bears repeating as long as societies continue to condemn the socially and economically disadvantaged, without examining how the very structures of those societies produce ‘criminals’ like Agnes.

Still, while the ‘truth’ of the events in Iceland in 1829 are unknowable, part of me does wonder at the desire to so thoroughly whitewash any historical figure; it’s seems to be motivated by a conviction that people must be wholly good to deserve our sympathies. The same might be said for the characters that we are encouraged to condemn–do they need to be so wholly bad? There seems to be very little to love about Natan Ketilsson–but there must have been more to him for him to gain the affections of Agnes, surely?

The audiobook I listened to was read by Morven Christie at a good pace and with deft pronunciation of the Icelandic names. Her reading evoked the pathos of the story and Agnes to great effect.

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