Although relatively new to them, I’ve quickly come to love the accessibility of audio books – that I can be walking or driving or hoovering and still be consuming books. I can drown out irritating chat on public transport and still be buried in a novel. I’ve only listened to a couple, and whilst I’m largely won over, I now realise that listening to a book is very different to reading it, and not necessarily always in a positive way.
There’s been a fair bit of chat about whether listening to a book is ‘cheating’. The simple answer to that question appears to be no – for typical adults, listening comprehension and reading comprehension is mostly the same thing, says Daniel Willingham, a Professor in Psychology.
The far more interesting question though, I think, is whether by listening to a book I’m experiencing it in the way the author intended.
My first audio book ever was Helen Garner’s Everywhere I Look, and it was the perfect introduction. Helen herself reads this and I loved the experience of her interpreting her book for me. It brought it to life in ways that I couldn’t have on my own.
My second excursion into audio book world has been quite different. I’m now thinking that by listening to The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, I’ve done the book an injustice.
Dominic Smith’s superb book doesn’t need another lengthy review, and certainly not by me. It has attracted significant praise, which it well and truly deserves. The novel centres around the theft of a Dutch landscape, At the Edge of the Wood, painted by Sara De Vos. It’s this painting which binds Sara De Vos to Ellie Shipley (an art student) and Marty de Groots (a patent lawyer) over 300 years after she paints it.
Smith has crafted a novel which flawlessly combines historical and contemporary backdrops: it flits between Holland in the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1600s, New York in the 1950s and Sydney in 2000. In all of these settings, the writing is rich, the attention to detail extraordinary and the story expertly and unpredictably constructed. Each character is brought to life so convincingly that on at least two occasions I googled ‘Sara de Vos’. I still can’t quite believe she is purely an invention of Smith’s imagination.
The novel canvasses themes of wealth (‘couldn’t decades of eating the best foods, taking the best vacations, and sleeping in the finest beds prevent the slumping of the frame and the spackling of the skin?), grief (‘nothing in the world is more sinister than a child’s coffin’) and in particular, regret: ‘you carry grudges and regrets for decades, tend them like gravesite vigils, then even after you lay them down they linger on the periphery, waiting to ambush you all over again’.
The book itself is stellar, but what about the audio version?
Unless you’re a sociolinguist, this is unlikely to bother anyone apart from Australians (and possibly Kiwis, South Africans and maybe some Irish people). But it almost killed the book for me, and probably would have if the book itself wasn’t so absorbing.
So, I am disappointed that I listened to The Last Painting of Sara De Vos. I know there were some passages that I’d have loved to have re-read and quotes I’d have jotted down – had the pages been in front of me. I also know that my imagination would have constructed a more authentic version of Ellie Shipley, and her Australian colleagues. As it was, I just couldn’t picture Ellie in my mind – that accent kept getting in the way.
I will keep on traversing the audio book world, but gingerly. As for any future narrators, particularly for books in Australian settings, they’ll be carefully vetted. Unless they’re Meryl Streep, of course.
What have been your experiences of audio books? Any I should avoid, or alternatively, seek out?