I'm a fan of Theroux's travel writing, and almost didn't pick this one up after listening to the sample and reading the complaints from the other reviewers about how the British narrator created confusion since Theroux is American.
However, something you may not know about Theroux (I did not) was that he had lived in England for 11 years prior to writing this piece, and the introduction states he had even picked up an English accent. While I'm sure it was not as pure as the narrator's, simply knowing this bit of information helped put me at ease. In addition, Ron Keith is a fine narrator who performs a wide range of regional and class-based accents during the reading, and these accents helped give a sense of where Theroux was, and who he was speaking with, at any given time. This would not have been possible with an American narrator.
As for the content, it is important to remember that this book was written in 1983, when many of the coastal communities in the United Kingdom were in steep decline. Theroux purposefully avoids the touristy spots, not entering even a single castle. Most of his encounters are with the working classes, so this travelogue has a gritty feel to it that one would not get from, for example, Bill Bryson's book (which I found a bit saccharine, as much as I enjoy Bryson).
That said, something about this book left me wanting. I'm not quite sure what is missing here that is present in Theroux's other books; he visits another writer (Jan Morris), and comments on others (some information on Orwell I found particularly interesting). He doesn't comment much on what he is reading, if anything on his journey, and as I write this I've realized that he doesn't describe much "down time" in general, when he's huddled in his room or in a pub at the end of the day -- this travelogue is almost all movement, and thus has a somewhat exhausting feel to it. Theroux feels like he's in a hurry, and you, as reader (or listener), get dragged along with him.
This fantastic collection of short stories has two narrators, a male (Robin Bloodsworth) for stories written from the perspective of male characters, and Suehyla El Attar for female. Mr. Bloodsworth's performance is spot-on, and a joy to listen to. However, I found Ms. El Attar's voice irritating in the extreme: overly breathy and excited like someone trying to sell you something on late-night TV, and employing several grating vocal tics including extensive use of "creaky voice" (rattling your vocal chords, especially at the end of sentences) and the "California Vowel Shift", substituting one vowel sound for another instead of using standard pronunciation ("Bast Aver" = "Best Ever", "Rast" instead of "Rest", etc). It's probably my age and that I am particularly sensitive to slight variations in sounds in general, but women who speak this way all sound like teenage girls to me and I'd prefer more standard elocution.
I must admit I am surprised at the popularity of this book after having listened to it. I cannot fault the narrator; her performances were spot-on. However, the novel is severely flawed:
- It starts out great, with the lady detective on a case. However, it then spends the next 30% of the page count on exposition, from the protagonist's childhood all the way through the founding of the agency.
- There is no plot as such, no over-arching problem that needs solving. Instead, after the long exposition sequence we are treated to a series of mostly unrelated vignettes in which the protagonist solves extremely simple "mysteries".
- Although the majority of the book is told as third-person omniscient through the main character, the author sometimes switches for brief periods to the minds of unimportant characters who appear for only a few sentences. He also switches between characters' heads within the same scene. It's quite jarring when he does this. The scenes should have been shown exclusively through the eyes of the protagonist.
- The characterization is rather flat, and there isn't any character development to speak of.
That said, the book does have a quiet, lazy charm. It is inoffensive light reading.
I realize this will slightly lower the overall score for this book (very slightly, given it has over 1000 ratings), but I wanted to call attention to something important for Audible.com listeners: the horrible introduction by Connie Willis.
The first 9:15 of this edition are taken up by the introduction. Despite being 42 years old at the time she read the intro, Ms. Willis has a powerfully nasal voice with a valley girl accent I associate with teenagers, so painful to listen to that I wanted to stick icepicks in my ears - and for the record, I was born in the same year as Ms. Willis, and in Southern California, so she has no excuse. Fortunately for me, I was in the shower while listening over computer speakers, so I wasn't able to harm myself. But I worst part was that, right after talking about how great it is for people who have never read the book before to encounter it for the first time, Ms. Willis proceeds to give PLOT SPOILERS IN HER INTRODUCTION. Did nobody at the publisher think that this was, perhaps, not a good idea? I actually had t jump out of the shower, dripping wet, and rush to my computer (proceeding to cause water damage to several hard-copy books) to turn off the audio while she continued to prattle on about details I really would have preferred to learn from the author.
I therefore choose to slightly lower the overall rating of this product for the greater good of this information not being buried in a sea of 5's..
Skip to 9:15 to avoid the intro (Ms. Willis not the narrator for the novel itself).
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