Category Archives: Audiobooks

Why We Swim

Non-fiction book about the history and psychology of swimming

I came across this book on Twitter a few months ago when the author ran a contest for World Swim Day. I didn’t win, but I was intrigued by the book. I don’t think I have ever been tempted by any book remotely resembling sports biography, but this book hooked me. I was a keen swimmer as a kid and every year trained for months in the lead-up to the inter-school swimming carnival in my local area. I’m a strong swimmer, if not a particularly fast swimmer, and after years of not winning any ribbons in high school I was thrilled to get 2nd place in a race in my last ever swimming carnival. Over the years since then, I’ve come back to the pool again and again and I can still easily swim 1km. A couple of years ago my partner bought me a set of swimming headphones and I even have an aquatic-themed playlist I listen to when I swim. There’s something that draws me to the water, and I was interested to see what drew other people as well. I saw that it was available as an audiobook, so I bought a copy to listen to.

Why We Swim cover art
Image is of a digital book cover of “Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui with one arm cutting through water against a navy background

“Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui and narrated by Angie Kane is a non-fiction book that blends memoir, journalism and anthropology to explore what it is that draws us to the water. Tsui provides a brief overview of swimming throughout human history using a few modern day examples, and then interviews extreme swimmers including a man who survived freezing Icelandic waters, a woman who smashed international distance swimming records while training to regain mobility and a man who started a swimming school for beginners in a war zone. Alongside this, Tsui shares her own experience as a swimmer and how the joy of swimming connects her with her family.

Tsui is a spirited writer who curates remarkable stories of swimmers who defy the limits. I particularly enjoyed the story of Gu├░laugur and the speculation about prisoners who escaped Alcatraz by swimming. I was also fascinated by the history of different strokes and the different types of swimming that emerged through Samurai culture in Japan. The exclusivity of swimming and swimming clubs in relation to gender, race and class in the United Kingdom was also very interesting. There was recently a controversy here in Australia very recently about a women’s swimming pool in Sydney that stated in its policy that only transwomen who have undergone gender reassignment surgery would be able to use the pool. The policy didn’t go into detail about how exactly staff would be checking this, but understandably there was considerable community concern and the Association responsible for managing the Ladies’ Baths has updated their website in response.

In addition to some of the social issues surrounding swimming, Tsui spends quite a bit of the latter part of the book on research about the impact that swimming has on our bodies, and the physical, emotional and social benefits of swimming which really resonated with me. I also found Tsui’s reflections on her own family’s experiences with swimming really touching, especially how the skill and affinity for swimming is being passed on to her own children. Kane was a clear narrator who was easy to listen to.

While this book certainly explores swimming around the world, it definitely has an American focus and a particular interest in exceptionalism. I was probably a little less engaged with the story of a swim school for beginners in Baghdad set up by an American soldier and stories about record-breaking swims than I was some of the others. I was really fascinated by some of Tsui’s writing about human swimming ability and physiology that makes us suitable for swimming, and although it is certainly an extremely contentious theory, I was surprised she didn’t mention the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis just for interest’s sake.

A thought-provoking book that has reignited my enthusiasm for swimming and inspired me to look into distance swimming here in Australia.

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A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing

Novel about a child prodigy all grown up

Content warning: sexual themes

This book was released this year, and I had seen it mentioned a few times on social media, so when I came across it while scrolling for my next audiobook, I thought I would give this one a go.

A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing cover art

“A Lonely Girl is a Dangerous Thing” by Jessie Tu and narrated by Aileen Huynh is a novel about a violinist called Jena who once was famous as a child prodigy. Now in her early 20s, her life in Sydney is consumed with rehearsals, auditions and hookups. As her ambition for music reignites, Jena is forced to confront what happened to make her career come crashing down in her late teens. For Jena, the violin is everything, but it is not enough to keep the deepest feelings of loneliness at bay. As her liaisons grow more and more complicated, Jena struggles to balance her dreams, her friendships and her lovers.

This is compelling book that attempts to answer a question I have certainly found myself wondering from time to time: what happens to child prodigies when they grow up? Through Jena, Tu explores the ways in which talent, work ethic and family support each influenced Jena’s success and downfall. Tu also examines how the lack of meaningful emotional connection as a child has impacted Jena’s relationships as an adult, resulting in messy, overlapping friendships and casual sex. Although Jena seems to yearn for close friendships, she also can’t seem to avoid self-destruction and choosing the gratification of feeling wanted in a fleeting sexual encounter over friends. However Tu challenges the reader to consider whether the standard by which we judge Jena’s behaviour would be equally applied to the men she sleeps with. Tu also explores the sexism in classical music: in the music written, the music selected and the people who gatekeep it.

I thought that the narrative decision of sending Jena to New York to confront her demons and the limitations of her talent was very clever, and it was this part of the book where Jena undergoes the most introspection about her past and the possibilities for her future. I also liked how Tu explores themes of race, countering stereotypes in a subversive way and subtly comparing Jena’s experience as Asian in Australia with her experience in New York. Despite her perfectionist approach to music, Jena’s personal life is largely an unmitigated disaster and she is often selfish and blunt, making a litany of poor decisions. Her ruthless ambition and frank descriptions of her sexual encounters are a far cry from the stereotype of Asian women as meek and unassuming. Huynh narrates the story with a flat, deadpan style that initially I found a little disconcerting but quickly warmed to. I felt that it actually captured Jena’s way of viewing the world well, and helped to translate Jena’s lack of emotional connection into the lived experience of loneliness.

I think that the part of the book that I found the hardest to reconcile was Jena’s affair with Mark, an older wealthy white man who is in a relationship with another woman. Tu leans uncomfortably into the cliche of seeking validation from sleeping with an unavailable man, and we have to watch Jena overlook Mark’s racist and sexist comments, and increasingly violent, dominating behaviour in bed. Conversely, a character that I really would have liked to have seen more of was an artist Jena meets called Val. There were a few points in the book where I thought that Tu might be hinting that Jena’s desire to be Val’s friend might translate into the intimacy she had been unable to find elsewhere, but unfortunately Val remained a relatively minor character.

There is plenty more I could go into, especially about motherhood, but I’ll wrap it up to say that this was a raw, challenging and fresh book that left me with plenty to think about.

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The Lebs

Literary realism about growing up Lebanese in Sydney

Content warning: sexual assault, racism

I first heard about this book when I saw the author speak on a special literary episode of Q+A. If you didn’t catch it, I would highly recommend watching it because there is some fantastic discussion about the Australian literary scene. The author in particular spoke so passionately and eloquently that his discussion really stuck with me, and I made a mental note to read his book. It popped up recently while I was searching for my next audiobook, and I was really excited to listen.

The Lebs cover art

“The Lebs” by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and narrated by Hazem Shammas is a bildungsroman about a teenager called Bani Adam who attends a Lebanese-majority high school in Western Sydney called Punchbowl Boys. Bani Adam is a dreamy boy whose thoughtful internal voice separates him from the hypermasculine culture that surrounds him. He has a deeply romantic crush on his English teacher, and after she leaves, he begins to channel his feelings into writing. When Bani Adam has a short story published, an opportunity arises for him to develop himself as a creative. However, outside Punchbowl Boys, Bani Adam grows to realise that the main thing that society sees in him is his ethnicity.

This is an incredibly insightful book that really captures the mood of Australia in the early 2000s. Bani Adam is an incredibly complex character, and I absolutely loved the dissonance between his articulate and sensitive inner voice, and how he presents to his friends and classmates. Shammas was a fantastic narrator, and the way he captured the voice of teenage boys, written with such honesty by Ahmad, was nothing short of brilliant. As someone who was in high school in Australia in the early 2000s, the cultural references, language and even occasionally behaviour were familiar to me. However, this book is about the singular experience of a Muslim-majority all-boys public school in Western Sydney, and it was eye opening to read about an experience in Australia happening parallel to my own. Ahmad captures how Lebanese identity, Islam and masculinity are so tightly woven together not only within the microcosm of Punchbowl Boys, but by Australian mainstream media against the backdrop of anti-Arabic sentiment in the wake of September 11 and the Sydney Gang Rapes. I thought that the way Ahmad handled the complexity and nuance of racial prejudice towards the Lebanese-Muslim community, and sexist and misogynistic attitudes within the Lebanese-Muslim community, was excellent. Bani Adam is the perfect protagonist for this book because while he is not comfortable with and doesn’t share the attitudes he hears from his peers, he learns that despite his inner self, he is still seen as just a “Leb” by the broader Australian community. Even though for some people the earlier parts of the book may be more confronting, I actually found the latter half of the book much more challenging when Bani Adam, seeking to improve himself artistically among peers, finds himself made to perform a caricature of the very community he is trying to distance himself from.

I just want to make a quick note about this book in audiobook format. As I mentioned, Shammas narrated this book excellently, but I also felt that this book really lent itself to being listened to. Ahmad revisits scenes several times, in the same way that teens (and adults) rehash events trying to examine them and make sense of them from different perspectives, using slightly different language and observations each time. I felt that this narrative style was actually really great in audiobook format for someone like me who can find active listening challenging at times, by reinforcing what is happening but challenging the reader to think about the same situation slightly differently. Interestingly, a significant way through the book, there was a content warning about discussion of sexual assault. I was surprised the producers decided to put this in just prior to the particular chapter rather than at the beginning of the entire book, so if you decide to listen, don’t worry, you haven’t accidentally skipped back to the beginning of the book.

A really important and thought-provoking book that I would thoroughly recommend. I found out after reading this book that it is actually a sequel to Ahmad’s book called “The Tribe” which I haven’t yet read, and now really want to.

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Virgins

Novella prequel to the “Outlander” series

Content warning: sexual assault, sex work

After having no positive COVID-19 cases in my city for over 3 months, I have accepted that I really have no excuse for not returning to the gym. It has been a bit surreal, to be honest. I’m santitising all the equipment before and after use, and I’m jogging to and from the gym to reduce my time in the space. However, it has been really good to be able to increase how much time I’m listening to audiobooks for (though I have to say, I seem to have a neverending amount of mowing to do). After my last audiobook, I thought I would try something a bit shorter this time. While I have mentioned her books previously, I actually haven’t reviewed any of this author’s books on my blog before. This is wild to me because I am a huge fan of the TV adaptation of this series and watch it religiously every season, and have been reading these books since I was a teen. The most recent book was published in 2014, and the author has been busily working on the 9th book of the series since then. I had this on my Audible wishlist and it was blessedly short, and kept me busy for two gym sessions and a run.

Virgins cover art

“Virgins” by Diana Gabaldon is a historical fiction novella and prequel to her “Outlander” series set in France in the 1700s. Two young Scots, Jamie and Ian, are reunited when Jamie joins a band of mercenaries in rural France. Jamie, beset with physical and emotional wounds following an incident with the English back in Scotland, takes a while to open up to his best friend about what really happened. Meanwhile, a simple job to escort a priceless treasure and a young woman safely to Paris soon goes awry.

This is a quick novella that shares a brief insight into the life of Jamie Fraser before he meets Claire in the main series. Although Jamie is traumatised, badly injured, over-confident and very naive, we see glimmers of the man that he will become later in the series. Jamie and Ian’s friendship is a given in the “Outlander” series, so it was interesting to see a little more of the interplay between the two and to see Jamie occasionally being less than generous with his best friend, bragging about his superior education. A large part of the plot centres on a femme fatale archetype which was titillating if not surprising.

I think if you haven’t read any of the other books in the series, I probably wouldn’t recommend you start with this one. While there are no spoilers, there are a lot of nods to character development and history that I think would make a lot more sense to a reader with more context. “Dragonfly in Amber” is largely set in France, and I think it makes for interesting reading to reflect on Jamie’s first experiences there knowing what happened later on than vice versa. There was a graphic sexual assault scene in this book that was pretty confronting as I was jogging along to the gym alone in the evening, and while I think that the scene was certainly historically plausible and Gabaldon does revisit the incident later in the book to mete out some justice, it was pretty shocking hearing the assault being rationalised due to the victims occupation as a sex worker.

This is a quick, easy book to read (or listen to) and I think my suspicions that I need audiobooks to be quick and easy have been proved once again. A good choice for an “Outlander” fan looking for something to tide them over until the next book and season.

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Beloved

Historical fiction about a mother’s trauma in the wake of slavery

Content warning: slavery, racism, infanticide

Last year, the renowned author Toni Morrison sadly died. She was the recipient of countless awards for her work including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993 (a display of which I was able to see when I visited the Nobel Prize Museum last year).

I have only read one of Morrison’s novels, “The Bluest Eye” and I had been debating for a while which of her books I would read next. I found out that many of her novels are available as audiobooks narrated by Morrison herself, and despite this year being a bit shaky for my gym/audiobook routine, I had been doing a bit of running and lawnmowing in lieu of the gym, and decided that I would listen to this one next.

Beloved cover art

“Beloved” by written and narrated by Toni Morrison is a historical fiction novel set in Ohio, USA just after the American Civil War. Sethe, an African American woman and former slave, lives in a haunted house with her 18 year old daughter Denver. The presence in the house is furious, chasing off Sethe’s two sons, and the mother and daughter live an isolated life together. However when Paul D, another former slave from the plantation Sethe escaped, arrives, he challenges the spirit and encourages Sethe and Denver to leave the house. He takes them to a fair, but when they return, they find a girl waiting at the doorstep. The girl, who calls herself Beloved, Sethe believes is her daughter who was killed as a baby.

This is a complex, subtle novel narrated beautifully by Morrison herself. She has a soft, breathy yet expressive voice with each sentence punctuated for excellent dramatic effect and the characters each brought to life. Sethe is a particularly interest character who, up until this point, appears to have been operating on two parallel levels. When Beloved manifests at the house at 124, and Paul D arrives with his questions and memories of the plantation, the two layers of Sethe’s psyche are unable to continue to exist separately. Denver, also initially drawn to Beloved, is the perfect lens through which to observe the changes in Sethe as a result of Beloved’s arrival and goes through significant character development herself. This book is a critical exploration of the multifaceted traumas caused by slavery, and the interplay between memory and identity.

I will admit that despite Morrison’s beautiful narration, this wasn’t a great book for me to listen to as an audiobook. I do have some difficulties with listening comprehension sometimes, and I think the subtlety and the cleverness of this book meant that each time I started daydreaming, I missed a critical part of the book. However, it was captivating enough that I think I would like to reread it in text so if I do, I will come back and update this review.

An excellent and provocative piece of fiction that I would very much like to revisit.

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Picture Perfect

Novel about love, family violence and belonging

Content warning: family violence

As I’ve mentioned previously, while everything is still under varying degrees of lockdown, I’ve had to find other suitable opportunities to listen to audiobooks that involve some kind of exercise. My solution: yard work. I’ve been trying to stick to shorter audiobooks to make it easier to pay attention, and this one came up when searching. Although this author is very popular and often a bit divisive, I have enjoyed a number of her books over the years, so I thought I would use an Audible credit on this book.

Picture Perfect cover art

“Picture Perfect” by Jodi Picoult and narrated by Megan Dodds is a novel about a woman who is found in a graveyard suffering from amnesia. She is taken to hospital by Will Flying Horse, who has moved to Los Angeles to work as a police officer. While Cassie recovers, pieces of her memory come back and she discovers that her real life is actually like something out of a fairytale. However, like most fairytales, there is a dark undercurrent and it will take all of Cassie’s strength to be her own hero.

Listening to this book, I was actually struck by how similar the story was to another book I read recently. Like “The Brave“, this story is about a woman who marries a movie star, who experiences domestic violence and who finds salvation in the arms of a biracial Native American man. Picoult’s novel was written 15 years earlier and I think hers is the better novel. Cassie is an anthropologist; educated, articulate and adventurous, she certainly doesn’t seem like the kind of person likely to be affected by family violence. However, the whole world falls for Alex Rivers’ charm and the acting skills he brings to the screen are just as effective at home. I felt like Picoult did a very convincing job of exploring the cyclic nature of family violence, and acknowledged that family violence does not discriminate and can happen in any type of family. Cassie is one of the three point of view characters, but unlike Nicholas Evans’ novel, it is her perspective that is put front and centre. I think I actually preferred this exploration of domestic violence to Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies“.

I am no expert on Lakota culture, but the novel felt much better researched in this regard as compared with “The Brave”, and Will’s character seemed far more well-rounded than Evans’ character Cal. Instead of being little more than a literary device, Will experiences his own struggles with his biracial identity, racism in the police force and frustration with Cassie’s situation. The narration of this book was quite good, and Dodds has a drawling, contemplative voice that lends itself to many of the reminiscing chapters. Unusually, some of these chapters had a bit of music backing which helped distinguish between past and present.

This is one of Picoult’s earliest novels, and I think it is fair to say that her storytelling has improved considerably over the years. The plot of this book was a little meandering, and I think that in trying to fully explore each character’s background, character and motives, something of the tension in the novel was lost. I am so used to Picoult’s hard-hitting, fearless plot twists that I was quite surprised that this novel petered out on a rather positive note.

A thoughtful book that was ahead of its time in discussing family violence, but not quite as punchy as Picoult’s later books.

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Normal People

Irish novel about love, communication and trying to fit in

Content warning: mental health, domestic violence

Now that I have discovered that, for me, less is more when it comes to audiobooks, I was intrigued to see this one offered for free on Audible last month. I’d heard about it, and one of the cover designs is quite memorable with the people inside the anchovy tin, but I didn’t know much about it. It was a quite achievable 7.5 hours long, and, regrettably, was the last book I started before the gyms closed.

Normal People cover art

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel about two teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who go to the same school in a small Irish town. Connell, though quiet, is popular at school while Marianne has no friends. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s mother, and although he and Marianne have never spoken at school, they begin to chat when he comes over to collect his mother after work. When they find themselves drawn together, they agree to keep things secret from everyone else at school. However, despite the magnetism between them, the secrecy makes their relationship uncertain. When they later cross paths at university, they click and become friends again, but changes in social standing and shortcomings in communication undermine the security they long to find in each other.

This was an absolutely stunning novel. I was absolutely hooked on every sentence. When the gyms had to close, I was desperate to find something active to do so I could keep listening and I ended up tackling the wilderness that had become our lawns. I found myself laughing aloud and my jaw actually dropping more times than I could count while listening to this book. Rooney has an absolute gift for exploring the tension, vulnerability and misunderstanding that can occur between two people. For a book that is ostensibly just about two people, there was not a dull moment. McMahon was a fantastic narrator and captured the tone of each character perfectly.

By getting to know each other more and more deeply over the years, Connell and Marianne slowly reveal their own secret struggles with mental illness and domestic violence to each other and become each other’s biggest support. However, Rooney is unmerciful in exploring how as humans we can fail one another, and how sometimes the only way to make amends is to grow as a person and succeed the next time. Rooney also provides some interesting commentary on class. She examines how class differences can complicate relationships, asking whether those complications are not insurmountable, and noting that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness protect against abuse.

This book was just fantastic. I’ve already been recommending it to friends. Even more exciting, just weeks after I read it, I found out that a TV adaptation is coming out that started YESTERDAY. If you want to read something really good, this is really good.

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Braised Pork

Surreal novella about a young Beijing widow

Back in the good old days, before social distancing, I used to go to the gym and listen to audiobooks to inspire me to keep going back. After my last few experiments, I thought perhaps 10+ hours of audiobook was a little long for my limited attention span and memory, so I thought I would try something a little shorter. On Audible, you can set the search terms for books of particular lengths, so I browsed some of the shorter ones (4 – 6 hours). This one was just over 5 hours, and sounded perfect.

Braised Pork cover art

“Braised Port” by An Yu and narrated by Vera Chok is a surreal novella about a young woman called Jia Jia whose husband dies unexpectedly while taking a bath. Childless, largely locked out of his will and without the structure of her traditional marriage, Jia Jia is left with their apartment and a small allowance. As she slowly starts to venture out into the world seeking a new independence through her art, Jia Jia begins to be plagued by realistic dreams of a watery world and the image of the fish man drawing her husband left on the bathroom slink. Eventually, after her attempt at a new romance falls flat, Jia Jia decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to discover the significance of the fish man.

This is an unusual, dreamlike story the pacing of which mirrors Jia Jia’s own meandering life. I really enjoyed Yu’s writing style. She has some striking imagery that really stayed with me. There was one particular scene where she refers to Jia Jia’s hair as looking like a stroke of calligraphy, and there are quite a few similar turns of phrase throughout. This is an original story with a unique point of view. Jia Jia is an intriguing character who, after having lived her whole life doing what she’s told, suddenly finds herself cut adrift. Although she finds a new purpose searching for the meaning of the fish man, there is still the sense that she is struggling to find her independence from men, be it her belated husband, her father, her lover or even a fellow traveller. Yu explores some interesting nuances of class in Beijing, in particular Jia Jia’s new status as a widow with limited financial resources. Chok is an excellent narrator with a clipped accent and matter-of-fact style that lends itself perfectly to the story.

Although it is a short read, this is a complex story that incorporates a lot of themes, elements and locations. While many of the scenes were themselves steeped with meaning, the story didn’t always feel as though it had a strong central thread to connect them together. I think the part that I struggled with the most was the significance of the watery world and the fish man. I’m not quite sure if I had tuned out while I was doing stretches at the gym or whether the story was deliberately left open-ended, but it felt like despite the several small revelations, the final picture was still kind of indecipherable.

A fascinating debut that perhaps leaves the reader with more questions than answers, I’m looking forward to seeing what Yu writes next.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Novella

Migraine: A History

Non-fiction book about the history of treating migraines

Back in the days when gyms were allowed, I was using audiobooks to help motivate myself to go. The rule was that I was only allowed to listen to the book while physically inside the gym building. This meant that in order to hear what happened next, I would have to go back to the gym. It was a great system! Anyway, I was flipping through Audible, trying to figure out what to spend my credits on, and I came across this book. I’ve had migraines since I was about 10 years old, so this is a topic close to my…brain.

Migraine: A History cover art

“Migraine: A History” by Katherine Foxhall and narrated by Robin J Sitten is a non-fiction book about the history of diagnosing and treating migraines. Foxhall examines how early physicians responded to their patients complaining the constellation of symptoms we now associate with migraine, and attitudes changed over time.

This is a fascinating book that taught me a lot about the way migraine is viewed by society. Interestingly, Foxhall argues that during the Middle Ages, physicians were more sympathetic to migraines (despite the brutal treatments they often tried out on their patients). It was only later that migraine began to be associated with weak, feminine and intellectual individuals unsuited to the hardships of labour outdoors. Foxhall argues that this change in social attitude has meant that migraine, despite being such a common and debilitating chronic condition, has received so little medical interest and funding. She compares this with other illnesses associated with women and touches on the issue of pain bias in the medical profession.

Foxhall is a clear, thorough researcher who explores in great detail the hardships many patients were subjected to in addition to their migraines. Sitten does an admirable job of bringing spirit into a non-fiction work, and her slightly sardonic tone was particularly enjoyable when reading the more gruesome treatments patients were subjected to.

However, this book taught me two other things. One, non-fiction is difficult for me to listen to for prolonged periods of time. Two, long books are difficult for me to listen to for prolonged periods of time. Despite Foxhall’s compelling research and Sitten’s reading style, it is hard to make a non-fiction book exciting to listen to, especially one written in an academic style. This book is just shy of 10 hours long, and with introductions, chapter summaries and conclusions, there was quite a lot of repeated information. Foxhall also spends a significant amount of time at the end of the book describing migraine art competitions which felt a little bit hard to relate to without actually looking at the artwork itself. It is also worth mentioning that this is a Eurocentric book, and while I appreciate that linguistic barriers exist, I would have really liked to have learned about how migraine has been considered and treated in non-Western cultures as a comparison.

Although perhaps a bit too long and academic to keep me enthusiastic at the gym, I related a lot to this book and learned a lot about how medical opinions on migraines have changed over the centuries, and not necessarily for the better.

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The Swan Book

Speculative fiction novel about an Aboriginal woman and her swans

Content warning: sexual assault

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I’ve started listening to audio books as a means of motivating myself to go to the gym. I’m still fine-tuning how exactly I select which books to listen to, but certainly the quality of the narrator is something I’ve realised is important to me. I have been trying to read more books by Aboriginal authors, and although I had heard of this author, I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I was scrolling through the categories on Audible and this book jumped out at me. I listened to the narrator in the sample, and immediately knew I wanted to hear more.

Image result for the swan book audible

“The Swan Book” by Alexis Write and narrated by Jacqui Katona is a speculative fiction novel about an Australia in the not too distant future. The story is about a young woman called Oblivia Ethylene who does not speak and whose story begins when she was found living in a tree. Taken in by a climate migrant Bella Donna, Oblivia lives on a swamp inside a rusted out hull in the middle of a military-run Aboriginal camp in Australia’s far north, and they are visited often by the overbearing Harbour Master.

Black Swan

A photo I took a while back of black swans on Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra 

However, as time passes, it becomes clear that Oblivia is not a reliable narrator, and her life actually began before she was found in a tree. We learn that Oblivia was gang raped, outcast from her family and deeply traumatised by the experience. Oblivia forms a deep connection with swans that come to Swamp Lake, later renamed Swan Lake, inspired by Bella Donna’s own love for the white swans of her homeland. After Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is visited by the newly sworn-in first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch who informs her that she is his promised bride. As Oblivia is forced to follow him to the Southern cities, she is in turn followed by the ghosts of her past and confronted by new ghosts in her future.

This is a deeply rich and complex novel that tackles a number of issues through a unique perspective such as trauma, the Intervention and climate change. I was struck by how many of the issues and predictions Wright made seem even more pressing now, only 7 years after publication. Oblivia is a fascinating character who appears both more aware and more naive than she first seems. Wright is a natural storyteller with a patient style, slowly unfurling each new piece of information and examining it from several perspectives before laying it down carefully before you. Nothing is rushed in this novel, yet at the end I found myself still unsure about so many elements of the plot. How much was real, how much was Oblivia’s fantasy, and how much was something in between? I’m still not certain what happened to the Genies or to Warren Finch, and whether Oblivia saw herself on TV or an impostor.

I absolutely must comment though on the narration of this book. Jacqui Katona was a superb narrator who captured the spirit of the novel completely. She has a soft, slightly cracked voice that reminds me of dust picked up by a desert wind. I loved listening to Katona speak in language, and she had a great knack for capturing the voices of the different characters, the matter-of-factness of the narration generally and even singing refrains from some of the songs referenced in the book.

Although Katona brought this book to life, I did at times find it a bit challenging to listen to. It’s no secret to anyone who has met me that I’m not the best at processing what I hear, but I did find this book at times maybe a little complex to concentrate on while I was also trying to count reps at the gym. Although Wright revisits pieces of the story several times, I did at times find myself asking whether a certain part was supposed to be ambiguous, or whether I had just missed something while I was trying to set the speed on the cross-trainer.

A captivating, intricate and extremely relevant book that Katona impeccably narrates.

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