The joy and the plight of any audiobook lies in the narrator.
I commute and listen to many audiobooks on Amazon's Audible app. Most books are pretty digestible, but the complexity of written dialogue can trip up a single reader, causing all nature of vocal sins. Too forceful. Too cutesy. Too many clumsy, clunky caricatures. A lack of synergy with the material you can't really define.
And then, there's the rare audiobook that achieves total tonal pow. I felt those vibes for The Handmaid's Tale audiobook, first released in 2012, given the Audie Award for fiction in 2013. Claire Danes is our narrator, Offred, the Handmaid imprisoned as an incubator in a misogynistic dystopia. There's no mistaking Danes' throaty, movie star voice, but you forget you're listening to the star of Homeland.
Danes is a steady guide through Gilead, and Margaret Atwood's words. She delivers with distance and stony isolation, a tempered tone potentially roiling with rage. Maybe it was all that time leaning against lockers with a detached gaze on My So-Called Life, but Danes really connects with the dead-inside Offred. The emotion comes not in over-the-top acting, but in nervous quivers: "And after that there was the dirt road, and the woods. And we jumped out of the car and began to run."
"It's so poetic," Danes said of Atwood's writing via Audible's YouTube channel. "I think the words are really served by being spoken out loud. It was just some phrases of hers that were exquisite. I would have to stop and go, how did she do that?"
Now that The Handmaid's Tale has a renewed place in pop culture thanks to, you know, the world, as well as the new television adaptation on Hulu, the audiobook has fresh legs.
This month, Audible released a special edition of the audiobook, including an essay by Mary Reilly author Valerie Martin and an afterword by Atwood, which comes following Danes' recitation of the famous last line: "Are there any questions?"
There will never not be. But now, we can venture to answer a few more while getting to work on time.