The Author Who Narrates Her Own Books: Catherynne M. Valente

It’s not often that an author records the narration for their own audiobook. Sure, you can go to public readings or listen to podcasts, but a recording of the whole dang book? Not likely, unless you’re Stephen King. Sometimes there’s good reasons for that – after all, a professional writer is not usually a professional voice artist as well (but oh I do love King’s Maine accent). That said, there’s of course something to be gained from hearing an author read her own work. You’re listening to the creator re-enact her creation in its most perfect form.

As I listened to Catherynne M. Valente narrate her 2011 novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (hereafter, I’m sorry, but I’m going to refer to it as The Girl Who…), I found myself not thinking about the story at all. Maybe because this is a book about a teenage girl, magical creatures, and whimsical adventures in the fairy realm. I didn’t enjoy it. That’s because I’m dead inside. Also I typically shun anything remotely resembling YA. I have been a YA, and I don’t want to go back. I admit, I didn’t realize this book would foist its YA-ness upon me – my bad. Not that September’s (that’s the girl’s name, September) adventures weren’t somewhat….dark and harrowing and grotesque at times (waaaiit…so is young adulthood). Hmm…maybe this book is more of a bedtime story for grownups (and almost-adults). It lulled me.

Don’t let me put you off The Girl Who… It’s quite exquisite, the language is gorgeous, the worldbuilding is utterly wild, and it has a heroine possessed of courage and emotion. I just couldn’t fall into it, though the tale reached out its bony fairy arms and offered me strange delicacies and tried to embrace me for many a chapter. I found myself daydreaming instead about rereading Pamela Dean’s Juniper, Gentian and Rosemary. That’s just me.

So, but – the narration. Wow. So much to say. I want to thank The Girl Who… for allowing me the opportunity to evaluate a narrator based on several important qualifications that I am now definitely going to apply to all audiobooks.

I. Voice  Valente’s voice is absolutely unique. She sounds like a velvet cushion with a kitten curled up on it. Like a gooey box of caramels. Like she just gargled Candyland’s Molasses Swamp. She does not sound like a professional voice actor. I was okay with that – in fact I really like her voice…but. You cannot polish a sugary cushion.

II. Delivery  Valente clearly feels the story. Duh, she wrote it. The listener can feel it, too – the tension between the characters, September’s fear and wonder. However, there were also times when I felt like the narration was too subdued. The story, to me, required an actress to make it truly come alive. Wait – required isn’t the right word. The story deserved an actress. A voice actor would’ve had a blast. Valente delivers, especially when she’s breaking the fourth wall and reading her lines as the often sly, wicked Narrator, but she doesn’t quite sound like she’s over the moon. I regretted on numerous occasions during my long listen that someone like Juliet Stevenson or Emma Thompson or even Anna Paquin didn’t get a chance to record the narration.

III. Technical Stuff  Valente does not enunciate. She does not create terribly individual accents for the many, many fantastical creatures and characters (from the Green Wind to a dragon-library to a trio of witches)…I mean, hoooo….the opportunity for performance here! see above). Her pacing is great though – just fast enough to keep things moving, and slow enough to digest all the quirkiness of the tale. This lulling…inner child’s…storytime tale.

I have no regrets about listening to The Girl Who… (wait – does it sound like I do?). This experience definitely reminded me of how incredibly vast is the universe of speculative fiction. There is literally something for everyone – at least, one can hope, and when there’s a lack (see then spec fic offers opportunity for expansion, indeed a rallying cry for more, more, more. I love that. So if you liked The Wizard of Oz (hate me….I never loved it like most people), The Brothers Grimm or The Wind in the Willows (I really should read that some day), then seek out The Girl Who… posthaste. You will adore it.

I’m sure you know, but this isn’t a standalone novel – there’s four more in the series, all narrated by Valente. I haven’t listened to them, but I am wondering if she’s done anything differently from her recording of The Girl Who… I would love to find out, but I’ve got to go reread Pamela Dean.