Friday, May 13, 2011

Not healthy for children and other living things

I've been afraid to read Michael Morpurgo's War Horse. It couldn't end well and I just didn't want to read about the animal sacrifice of World War I (one million dead!), along with the human loss. But there's one thing I love as much as reading, and that is a splendid theatrical experience and the stage play of Morpurgo's novel certainly sounds like one. Even though it's unlikely I'll see it, I was still intrigued enough to seek out the audiobook. With trepidation, I put it in my ears. I made it through the audiobook without tears, but I don't think I could watch the movie dry-eyed.

The title character -- and first-person narrator -- is Joey, a half-thoroughbred stallion raised by a farmboy named Albert in Dorset. Albert's father bought Joey as a colt, but took against him for some reason, so as soon as World War I begins he sells him to the British Army without Albert's knowledge. Albert vows to join up as soon as he can and find Joey in France.

The rest of the novel follows Joey into France, where he meets a boon companion named Topthorn who helps him endure trench warfare. Joey and Topthorn spend some time with the German Army before a tragic event brings Joey nearly to death's door. (Note nearly -- I took comfort from the fact that since Joey was telling the story he was going to make it!) Many men and horses die, but Morpurgo's light touch describes these events for young readers so they can access the tragedy without being overwhelmed by it. I might go so far and recommend it for gentle readers -- well maybe not that far -- but it's definitely not for those who crave bloodthirsty adventure.

John Keating narrates the novel. I've listened to him read several times (check out the links via the Audiobook Jukebox), and don't count him among my favorite narrators. I found his interpretation of Joey to be almost subdued -- he reads in an overly soothing, almost lulling manner that kept me, I think, from fully connecting with him emotionally. Thus my lack of tears? I wonder. Occasionally I felt he was reading so deliberately as if he thought I were slightly dim and couldn't really understand. Part of me thinks he's reading this way because he's reading for children; if so that bugs me and he shouldn't.

His delivery would get livelier when voicing the human characters -- young Albert is alert and gregarious, an enthusiastic Scots cavalryman delights in his horses, and a German soldier who braves No Man's Land is portrayed as hearty and humorous. Keating can create characters with accents and there's plenty to go around here -- English officers and enlisted men, Welsh, German, French. He's a capable reader, but his narration doesn't transport.

Which is too bad for this novel, I think. Morpurgo packs some big ideas into his short story: the love of humans and animals, the savagery of war, the lack of differences between combatants, the responsibility that humans have to domesticated animals. It's epic in a way -- full of triumph and loss. But Keating's narration stays small -- he's just telling you a story about a boy and his horse.

This is particularly disappointing when I read about the emotional impact of the stage play. (Audiobook convergence note: Narrator Alyssa Bresnahan is in the cast of the play.) Also, this novel is nearly 30 years old -- how cool is it that a stage play caused someone to dig deep into the backlist and think about an audiobook!

[This image from Wikimedia Commons is of a 1915 postcard by Fred C. Palmer.]

War Horse by Michael Morpurgo
Narrated by John Keating
Scholastic Audiobooks, 2010. 4:04


Anonymous said...

Personally I avoid anything read by John Keating. He has ruined many a Joe Abercrombie book for me. So much in fact I actively avoid anything he narrates. I am sure he is a nice guy, but seriously he is very very bad at audiobooks. Every book he narrates gets pretty bad reviews for performance on Audible.

Anonymous said...

I listened to Half a King and loved Ben Elliott's reading.. Listening to the second book now, and Keating's makes me pause the iPod every other minute. He's just not with the feel of the moment, the listener is VERY conscious he's reading. Every sentence is a pronouncement of an event rather than a part of a narrative and emotional flow. The accents are well done as far as this American can tell, but I don't want to hear someone READING AT me. Get out of the way and let the story come through.