What Makes a Good Audiobook Narrator?

That’s the question for discussion today on Audiobook Week 2012 hosted by Devourer of Books.

I’ve just started listening to audiobooks regularly this year and already found a few excellent narrators:

Jeremy Irons reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh — I’ve already mentioned how captivating his voice is on my review. Basically, it’s the aptness of the tone in fitting the mood and atmosphere of the book. Clarity is crucial as well. Often when just listening, I would easily get confused as to who’s talking. But Irons is most efficient in keeping his characters distinct. Finally, the dramatization of them is spot on. I can see them in my mind’s eyes. They are convincingly interpreted and portrayed, consistent with the characterization of the book.

Peter Francis James reading On Beauty by Zadie Smith — This is a challenging book to narrate because of its myriad of accents and racial mix. James has done an amazing job in voicing the characters in their cultural, gender, and age-related quirks and expressions. Here we have a fusion of British, British/American, African American, rapper American, and British/Trinidadian. All these just to depict two mixed-race families. Here, the criterion for excellent narration is efficiently met: Amidst the cacophony of voices, James has distinguished the characters with apt individualism, helping me to appreciate each character on its own.

Tim Jerome reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson — This 2005 Pulitzer Prize winning novel has only one character speaking throughout and that’s the ageing Reverend in Gilead, Iowa, John Ames. Suffering from illness but still lucid and wise, he leaves his memories to his very young son as a family legacy while he still has time. Tim Jerome’s voice exudes gentleness, compassion, forgiveness and wisdom, just like the character John Ames. Listening to the audio makes me feel like he’s casually and warmly chatting with me over coffee after a good meal. I don’t think I’ve heard another more gentle and loving voice, which is so appropriate with the characterization.


You can see I’ve mentioned the audiobook that I listened to with these narrators, as I haven’t heard their other works. So this leaves another question: Are they just as excellent in those other readings? That I’ll gladly explore.


Audiobook Review: Brideshead Revisited Read by Jeremy Irons

Don’t be misled by the cover design. This audiobook is not related to the 2008 movie adaptation. Rather, it’s an unabridged recording of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, engagingly read by Jeremy Irons, who plays the narrator Charles Ryder in the 1981 award-winning British TV series.

Jeremy Irons exemplifies what an ideal audio performance should be like. We look for the visuals in a movie; we are drawn to the voice in an audiobook.

For one who has had his share of youthful desires, tasted love and loss, and known the ambivalent effect family and religion can bring, now twenty years after, Charles Ryder is resigned to a numb and dreamless existence. Irons delivers such a tone perfectly… his deep, quiet and sombre voice an apt reflection of Ryder’s sentiments.

His voice dramatizes the various characters with clarity. As a listener, I can easily tell who’s talking, as simple as that. From the senior Lord Marchmain to 12 year-old Cordelia, from the stuttering Anthony Blanche to the constantly drunk Sebastian Flyte, Irons’ portrayal is natural and apt. Characterization is consistent in their manner of speech, quirks and eccentricities. Further, he has also effectively conveyed the subtext, the undercurrents in the dialogues, for example, the sardonic remarks Edward Ryder often hurls at his son.

On top of all these, Irons has presented Waugh’s beautiful language and descriptions with poetic eloquence. His articulation stops me time and again to rewind so I can listen and savor the language once more.

Here is the excerpt that seized me from the start and sent me to find the passage in the book to recap every word. This is in the Prologue when Charles unknowingly arrives Brideshead in his army duty twenty years later and asks his subordinate where they are. This is the moment when he is told the name of the place:

He told me and, on the instant, it was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, full of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.

I know it’s a bit long, but I must include it here, for this is the passage that has drawn me to the written word, all because of the voice reading it. Can this be the measure of a good audiobook?


Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh read by Jeremy Irons, BBC Audiobooks America, 10 CD’s, 11 hrs 21 min, Unabridged. July 22, 2008.

~ ~ ~ ~ Ripples


Thanks to Devourer of Books for hosting Audioweek 2012.

Other related posts on Ripple Effects:

The Downton Ripples

Dances With Words