Saved this audio book for my long drive last week. As I set out, I listened to Kate Rusby singing “Botany Bay”: “Farewell to old England forever . . . “ Seemed appropriate. It's hard to say good-bye.
Then I settled down to this book, quickly becoming entranced by the voice of the narrator, Glen McCready. Many folks who listen to audio books have favorite narrators. I'm usually too caught up in the story to notice, but sometimes I'm just bowled over. For instance, Jim Dale's reading of the Harry Potter books is astounding. So many characters, so many voices—flawless. Or a man who has narrated some of the Nero Wolf books, who brought the individual characters to life to the point where I actually believed there were multiple actors narrating the story. When I looked to see who the narrator was, I had to laugh. I had seen him play Hamlet many, many years ago at Center Stage in Baltimore. His humor, intensity, and swordplay had sparked my sons' interest in Shakespeare, an interest that has lasted into adulthood.
In this book, it is not so much character voices that McReady has to keep straight and bring to life, for there are few characters. Rather, it is the mood, the atmosphere of a Hereford village, remote, rural. And he does it brilliantly. Listening to him, I remembered the early darkness of December in Yorkshire, the rustling hedgerows of June in Oxfordshire. Oh, it's not all the narrator, of course. It's the writing. I could see why this book was longlisted for the Orange Prize. The descriptions are so well-written; the story so absorbing.
Let's go back. This is the story of Richard Allen, a young man who has come to a remote village in Hereford to take up his first appointment as a curate in December of 1860. An idealistic young man, still mourning his father's recent death, nervous about being able to fulfill his new responsibilities. The bitter cold of his arrival, the bleak fields under the stars, made me shiver, despite the warmth of the car. Almost immediately Richard tangles with the vicar, Oliver Bowen, over an article refuting Darwin's monstrous theories.
Darwin is not the only catalyst shaking up the centuries-old village ways. Richard has arrived on the train, and there is much talk of the changes that the railroad has brought and will bring. Change. Stasis. Constancy. Growth.
There was quite a remarkable article in the New York Times on 29 July. Apparently, even now scientists don't really understand why glass acts as it does. It seems to be a liquid whose molecules have slowed until they are not moving at all, until they are neither liquid nor solid. Richard Allen's story plays out at a particular tipping point of the culture, when centuries of certainty began to give way to doubt, when the modern age began to change the pace of life, and the self began to be felt as something independent, something separate from the community.
I enjoyed this book. It reminded me of Carr's A Month in the Country which also captured so well what it is like to walk into an English village church and how people can touch each other's lives. Allen wrestles with his faith, his doubt. The main storyline, though, which was of somewhat less interest to me, involved his falling in love with the vicar's young wife. Oh, it was well done. Not overly sentimental. But I couldn't help but think his rhapsodies about his beloved sounded like what a romantic young woman would want a man to feel, to write in his journal, to avow in brief passionate encounters.
I'm just an old cynic, I guess. It's a lovely story, sad, of course, and difficult. But quite the perfect thing to listen to on a long drive.