I’m listening to the mesmerising voice of Meryl Streep as she narrates Tom Lake, a novel by Ann Patchett, one of my favourite authors. I wander around the house, making the bed, watering house plants, shoving laundry in the washing machine. Completing chores, becalmed by that lilting voice. I don’t want the story to end.

It’s always a delight to begin listening to an audiobook and discover the voice is not only perfectly chosen, but familiar. Reese Witherspoon, with her southern drawl, is a splendid voice for narrating the Alabama character of Jean Louise Finch in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The smooth tones of Colin Firth bring to life the character of Maurice Bendrix in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, the rendition so successful that it won Audiobook of the Year in 2013.

When a narrator is joined by a second voice, a third or more, you’re listening to a full-cast edition. George Saunders’ acclaimed Lincoln in the Bardo boasts a cast of 166 narrators, one for each character in the book. “We used Hollywood A-listers Susan Sarandon, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Don Cheadle and others to narrate the story,” said Saunders, “and also a bunch of family members and close friends.”

Professional audiobook narrators have versatile voices which can work with different genres from historical fiction to sci-fi, classics to thrillers. Voice actor and narrator Sura Siu’s multilingual skills give her an advantage over single-language narrators, especially as she appreciates the subtleties of such tonal languages as Chinese and Thai in which a change of pitch will change the meaning of a word. Accomplished in Asian-American English and accented Chinese, Thai, Japanese and British English, Sura Siu was a fabulous choice to narrate the character of Klara in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun. Siu’s precise, formal narration of the solar-powered AF (Artificial Friend) Klara makes the robot’s curiosity about love, loyalty and sacrifice all the more poignant and striking.

When a fictional character is a young child or teenager, it can be challenging to find the most appropriate narrator. Australian actress Zoe Carides was an inspiring choice for the character of Ned in Robbie Arnott’s Limberlost, set over a single summer in Tasmania in the 1940s. Her slightly husky register perfectly conveys the insecurities of teenager Ned, the unsteadiness of his voice, his search for answers about the past, his apprehension for the future.

A well-chosen narrator can lift a compelling story from engaging to the sublime. Book narration requires skill and talent, the ability to enunciate clearly, control breathing, subtly lift the voice to show the appropriate emotion, understand a character’s story and motive, differentiate between each character and the narrator.

I’ve listed below some of my favourite audiobooks. I’m curious to know which audiobooks have captured your attention. Please let me know in the comments.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, narrated by Maggie Gyllenhaal
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett, narrated by Tom Hanks
Elinor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, narrated by Catherine McCarron
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, narrated by Claire Danes
Haven by Emma Donoghue, narrated by Aidan Kelly
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, narrated by Thandiwe Newton
Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, narrated by Miranda Raison
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir, narrated by Ray Porter
Restless by William Boyd, narrated by Rosamund Pike
The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, narrated by Dan O’Grady
Still Life by Sarah Winman, narrated by Sarah Winman
The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, narrated by Emma Thompson


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