For the first time in ages, I’ve listened to an audiobook. No, really – audiobooks and I… I absolutely love the idea in principle, only I find myself easily distracted by details. I begin to wonder about the exact lie of the land, the pigments that would have been used to dye a particular kind of silk, the sort of face this or that character would have… and by the time I come back from my wanderings, the narrator has gone ahead.
And this is why I usually regard audiobooks the way I would a tiger: fascinated but wary – from a safe distance.
Then I had this email exchange with Margaret Skea, who told me about having her Munro Saga turned into audiobooks, and described the fascinating process of choosing a reader and working with him rather in the way a stage director would… I was so taken with the whole that, when Margaret very kindly sent me a copy of Turn of the Tide’s audiobook, I was more than ready to face my tiger…
And let me tell you: I’m very happy that I did!
Well, of course there is that Turn of the Tide is very much up my alley: beautifully written historical fiction, set in Scotland in the late 16th century…
It all begins with a gruesome raid, the latest of the kind in the long-standing and very bloody feud between the Cunninghames and Montgomeries. Our hero, Munro, is a lesser relation to the Cunninghames – and none too happy about what the connection entails. He doesn’t much like the head of the family, the ruthless Earl of Glencairn – and as for Glencairn’s heir, violent, brash, and very mean William, avoiding an open clash is all that Munro can do.
After the latest massacre, though, King James finds that he has had enough, and forces the two feuding families into a reluctant truce. The compromise is hard on both sides – all the more so because wily James likes to play his subjects, and make them sweat for his uncertain favour.
Then, in the middle of it all, Munro crosses paths with Hugh Montgomerie of Braidstane and his family… and finds that he likes them much better than his own Cunninghame people. Can they be friends, in spite of inherited enmity, family loyalty, and spilled blood?
Margaret Skea does a wonderful job of slowly brewing trouble as her characters navigate the treacherous waters of all sorts of conflicting loyalties and interests. Immediate family, feudal ties, the king’s favour, friendship. All the time, the ingrained violence and cut-throat Court politics are sharply contrasted with the warmth of family life. If only the Munros and the Montgomeries could be left to live their simple lives… But it’s not to be, of course: at every step it is made chillingly clear that both the old feud, and James’s new way of dealing with power are always there – looming, threatening, exacting a price for each choice.
Fascinating stuff – and then there are the wonderful, vivid description of moor, town, city and tower house, and the careful period detail, and just the right amount of Scots to give flavour, and the complex, flawed, intensely human characters – from the Munro children (the bairns!) to William Cunninghame, who is a villain in the grand old tradition, gleefully mean-spirited, incapable of seeing beyond his violent (and often foolish) impulses, and all the more dangerous for it.
And what of the narration, you’ll wonder? Well, I truly loved the tiger. Dave Gillies has a wonderful voice, with the most pleasant burr to it, and an ability to render a small host of different voices without ever descending into caricature. With well-judged pace and rhythm, he reels you into the story, and does full justice to Margaret’s skillful weaving of bleak and happy, warm, and tense, colourful and sad…
A most enjoyable experience – and one that I thoroughly recommend.