Best new audio books — classics reinvented and reimagined

Jonathan Coe’s interwoven paeans to the lives of those rooted in the very center of the UK — The Rotters’ Club duck Middle England among them — blend comedy, tragedy and social commentary in enjoyably memorable fashion, and his latest, Bournville (Penguin Audio, 12 hrs/29 mins), is no exception.

It begins with the very first intimations of the pandemic, when two musicians find themselves touring Europe as venues begin to close down. From there, we’re ushered back into the past, and the final days of the second world war, as experienced by the occupants of the titular village that was built by the Cadbury family for the employees of their chocolate factory.

Narrators Peter Caulfield and Cara Horgan, who take us through the decades between then and now via a series of critical national moments such as the Queen’s coronation, the 1966 World Cup final and the Brexit vote, have a tricky job on their plates: their reading must encompass the downbeat humor with which Coe elaborates daily routines, the suppressed conflicts that arise between the disparate personalities of sprawling families, and the ceaseless but often subtle changes in the social fabric.

What impressed me about their performances was a sense of pacing and tonal shift: when, in one scene, a man sits talking to his aging mother and imagines the emotional havoc her death will wreak on those around her, I found myself moved to tears; shortly afterwards, we are back among the puns and almost pantomime set pieces.

Coe’s particular gift is to understand how nostalgia, regret and an apprehension of what the future will bring might make us more, not less, empathetic to the frailties of those around us. Caulfield and Horgan capture beautifully the implicit sadness — and joy — of ordinary life.

A life begun in thoroughly rackety circumstances powers Barbara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead (Faber, 21 hrs/3 mins), in which Dickens’s David Copperfield is transplanted to the impoverished Appalachians and its child narrator is born to a mother more often in rehab than out of it.

audiobook cover 'Demon Copperhead'

Charlie Thurston takes the eponymous role, describing Demon’s often hapless progress through the care system in a broad Virginian drawl. This is a long and immersive listening experience, ranging from a child’s incomprehension to a young man’s determination to shape his own destiny, peopled with characters who are, as in Dickens, frequently capricious, often filled with swagger and sometimes malevolence.

It’s Thurston’s ability to represent Kingsolver’s way with an eventful narrative, and to incorporate vulnerability, curiosity and sheer doggedness, that makes it so affecting. This is a novel, and a reading, in which the propulsiveness of the plot will suddenly give way to a glimpse of the confusion of the boy at its heart.

“‘Tis the year’s midnight,” as John Donne’s poem “A Nocturnal upon St Lucy’s Day” reminds us, the time when “the world’s whole sap is sunk” — and an excellent moment to sink oneself into Katherine Rundell’s astonishing biography of the metaphysical poet, which has recently won this year’s Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction. Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne (Faber, 8 hrs/41 mins) is read by actor Jamie Parker, who has an impressive track record in audio recording.

audiobook cover 'Super-Infinite'

Rundell’s approach to Donne is strikingly imaginative and visceral, thrilling to his capacity to imagine love and sex, violence, death and eternity in speculative, searching poetry, and Parker brings all this to his reading. At times he almost growls Donne’s lines, furnishing them with an immediacy and contained emotion that reveal their immense power. Courtly love poetry this is not, and it will leave you both challenged and refreshed.

Two lighter offerings for the holiday season — designed to cheer and provide diversion when the lightless afternoons crowd in or the proximity of family drives you towards a quiet corner.

audiobook cover 'Marple'

First is marple: Twelve New Stories (HarperCollins, 11 hrs/29 mins), in which a dozen writers, including Val McDermid, Naomi Alderman and Dreda Say Mitchell, come up with new mysteries for the sharp-eyed Jane Marple to solve. Naturally, each has a different take, though the rules of engagement dictated that they must adhere to Agatha Christie’s existing period setting and not concoct wild backstories for Miss Marple, all of which means that, as well as ingenious, they are also a delightfully comforting listen, especially as read by such luminaries as Celia Imrie, Adjoa Andoh and Miriam Margolyes.

audiobook cover 'Darling'

Finally — and rather freer in its approach to updating a classic — comes India Knight’s Darling (Penguin Audio, 7 hrs/59 mins), which takes Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love and its free-spirited heroine Linda Radlett and weaves a tale of rock stars and romantics. Pure escapism and, as read with gusto by Sophia Winkleman, just the ticket.

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