Monday, September 14, 2009

Snowbirds

The Nest takes place in the Australian snow -- two words I truly don't expect to see together in a sentence. A couple of reviews linked from the author Paul Jennings' website refer to the location as the Victorian alps, which is also a weirdness for my North American-centric eyes: Victorian isn't a place, it's an era. At the end of the this audiobook, the author and the narrator are chatting about the real-life equivalent of the fictional location, and we learn that the setting is (I think ... it's kind of hard to understand them when they are pronouncing unfamiliar words) Mount Buller.

The Nest is the story of Robin Gordon. Robin lives with his father, an extremely angry and unhappy man who repairs engines for the ski patrol and others in the mountain community. Robin has two possessions of his mother's: Her engagement ring and her hairbrush. She disappeared when Robin was a baby -- his father tells him she ran off with another man. At 16, Robin fears his own strong emotions, as he is having recurring daytime visions where he violently attacks his father. He's also a skilled writer of short stories, but his teachers are disturbed by the violence that appears in these as well. It is the titular nest that brings these matters to a head, becoming the instrument by which Robin learns what truly happened to his mother.

The chapters telling us Robin's story are interspersed with his short stories, and they are -- indeed -- violent and disturbing: a monk enjoys sexual release while self-flagellating and drinking champagne (I'm not sure I'm remembering this correctly); but they are also quite witty and sophisticated: A girl dating two boys attempts to change each of them into the other. They often foreshadow the events of the novel. Initially, I was confused by these -- I don't think I clued in to the fact that they were Robin's stories until the third one. I'm wondering if I missed a something early on in the narrative that would have clarified this, but the first story -- the one about the monk -- is just so bizarre that I'm not sure I still would have made the connection.

The audiobook is narrated by Stig Weymss (which he pronounces whey-ms), and he is the kind of narrator who really gets into his reading assignments. I might venture to say that he is too into his work. It's a melodramatic performance full of gasps, sighs, shrieks, screams, gulps, some extremely over-the-top tears, and a general all-around breathlessness that could easily veer into parody. In the end, I think it detracts from the book.

Weymss' narrator quirks are in addition to the focus I have to bring to listening to his Australian accent. Australians speak rapidly and punchily. It's an unfamiliar cadence to my American ear, and takes some getting used to. This book was hard work.

The Aussie-isms aside, I also have issues with the book and its suitability for audio. Its structure is pretty confusing, a confusion exacerbated because a listener is without the visual clues that a text would provide. There's a brief dramatic scene in the beginning before the book "properly" begins (that is revisited at the book's denouement ... but I didn't remember this until I went back to listen to the beginning again). OK, this is not an unusual literary device, so let's set that confusion aside; let's listen openly as the story comes together, as we gather the strands we're being given into something that makes sense. It's coming along, when -- wham! -- we're in the monastery with the perverted monk. I had a definite huh? moment. Even when I figured out that these were Robin's stories, I felt off-balance much of the book. Sometimes, it's good to feel off-balance (When You Reach Me, anyone?), but here it didn't feel good. Maybe it was the combination of puzzling out the book and decoding the Australian accent that made for the ultimately unsatisfactory experience.

The publisher does include atmospheric music at the beginning and end of each disc. I like that. There are even tweeting birds in this music, which seemed odd at first -- until I remembered the title. I had one of those dope-slap moments: birds, The Nest ... hmm, what nest? Is it a metaphorical nest? I guess I have to keep listening.

I also enjoyed the author-narrator interview at the end. Weymss stays in wacky character -- making jokes and offering Jennings a cup of coffee (sound effect). Their conversation goes on for some time, and it is natural and informative. I've listened to a handful of post-book interviews recently, and they almost all sound stilted and rehearsed. This one sounds like two guys in a coffee bar. Nice.

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