It was quite a journey working with the voice artist and actor Christopher James on the novel during this lockdown period.
He and I talked quite intensely about the novel via email as he grappled with the novel’s difficult subject matter and extended narrative. I believe he’s done a magnificent job. I know I am biased, but I found the process of listening to the novel again gripping!
For those of you who are not authors: it can be quite painful listening to your own words read back to you again by someone else, particularly if the reader isn’t that great! But Chris is a wonderful interpreter, and after the initial feelings of ‘uh-oh, is this novel any good?’ I found my self immersed in the story in a way I hadn’t been before. I know I had written it, but I finished the book over three years ago now, and I feel I have moved on as a writer, and I wondered if the narrative would ‘stand up’.
For me, it triumphantly did, thanks in part to Chris, who managed to give the narrator of the novel, Nick, an energetic but melancholic aspect and read the dialogue really brilliantly. The other characters of the novel really came alive for me. These are my highlights and thoughts on these characters.
For those of you who are not familiar with the story, this is an amplified version of its blurb, which I’m quoting now so that you understand my comments about Chris’s interpretations of the characters which follow.
Nick is cracking up. In his mid-forties, he has just been sacked as an arts journalist, with little prospect of getting such a well-paid, prestigious job again. Even more worrying for him is his suspicion that his wife, Hadley, a Deputy Head at a school, is having an affair with a much more successful person: does she want to trade in Nick for a better model? His marriage problems are now exacerbated by money worries and concerns about the future for his nine-year old son, Jack.
But most devastating of all is the fact that he learns that a former lover, Ellida, has died.
Unable to find a new job, Nick miserably fails, despite his best attempts, to be pro-active and positive, and retreats into memories of the past. He remembers the romantic times he had with Ellida in the 1980s and 1990s; times when, as a student, he wrote and directed a crazy mime play which was performed in Sussex woodland on the summer solstice; the wild parties and alcoholic picnics by the sea; and, most poignantly for Nick, an impossibly romantic holiday on the Northumbrian coast at his grandparents’ picturesque farmhouse. But Ellida and his grandparents are now dead. Can Nick ever recover his lost happiness? This is his search in the present. He meets up with Ellida’s former husband, an eccentric music composer, Arnholm. and his daughter Isolde; her friends and seeks recover ‘lost time’ by visiting the places of their past loves. Sometimes he travels with his young son, Jack, and at others, he goes alone.
The novel is, above all, an evocation of the character of Ellida, who, for Nick, was the most magnetic person he ever met.
Given this basic plot outline, hopefully you can understand my responses to Chris’s reading of the various characters without having read the book:
Ellida. She is the heart of the novel; the passionate, destructive Norwegian lover of Nick. Chris succeeds because he manages to give her a plausible Norwegian accent – or a sense of her foreignness to Nick – and a humanity, a sanity even. Ellida does some crazy things in the novel – demanding sex in wild locations, getting drunk in strange ways, swimming in dangerous waters both literal and metaphorical – but she is, for me at least, clear-headed much of the time, damaged but perceptive of herself and the world. Chris’s reading provides this strange mix of wildness and clarity very well in his reading.
Hadley. She is the American teacher-wife of Nick, and is an ordered, thoughtful person, caring and a good mother. Possibly one of the issues about her is that she could be seen as strangely unsympathetic because she is so ‘together’. I felt that Chris’s reading made her a moving character; he gave her dialogue a moving quality, a vulnerability which I hadn’t heard before.
Arnholm. He is the former husband of Ellida, a selfish, narcissistic composer who is Norwegian/Catalan. I felt that Chris captures his accent very well, and this works excellently in the dialogue scenes when Arnholm is speaking to both Nick and Ellida, as their contrasting voices give the audio book the quality of a play at this point. For me, Chris really inhabited Arnholm.
Isolde or Izzy. She is the troubled, wayward, damaged daughter of Ellida who Nick connects with many years after his affair with Ellida has ended. Chris catches her accent – which is British – nicely, and the scenes at the end of the novel with Izzy and Nick have an emotional quality. I felt he captured Izzy’s sadness. I was very moved by his reading of the last scene.
Jack. He is Nick and Hadley’s young son, upset by the difficulties in his parents’ marriage. Chris gives him a suitably plausible boy’s voice; again, a really tricky thing to do, but he pulls it off, and the scenes where Nick and Jack talk about life, relationships and everything are believable and funny.
Mercy. She is a Nigerian-English academic who plays an important but small role in the novel. This was a challenge, but I felt that Chris conveyed her humanity without descending into stereotype.
Other characters: Ellida’s parents, Nick’s grandparents. These were smaller roles, but once again because Chris read the novel so carefully before reading it aloud, he really ‘got’ them, the nuance and importance of them in the narrative.
So, what am I saying here? Listen to the novel if you want! I felt immersed in the world of Nick as I listened to Chris read the book: I wanted to know Who Did He Love?!
There could be many other interpretations of the book; it could be read in a more male way, with more bravado, possibly at a greater pace, or it could be read more slowly, more lugubriously. I think the novel is open to both interpretations, and a lot of others! But I liked Chris’s mix of keeping the pace up and yet emphasising the emotional side of the narrative.
Below, you can listen to a section in the middle of the novel where Nick has returned from Brighton to his wife, Hadley, and child, Jack, having met his lover’s grown-up daughter Isolde, who has got drunk with him and then tried to go to bed with him. Nick has rebuffed her advances but is shaken and lies to his wife about seeing Isolde, saying he was seeing his friend George instead.
If you’d like to review the novel and thus acquire a free audio download of it, please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org There are only a limited number of free copies so they will be issued on the basis on your willingness to offer a review (if only a brief one) and on a first come, first served basis.