There is no doubt that Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary is a superbly written book. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, it’s elegant, imaginative, and steeped in grief. It’s a brave interpretation of one of the most hallowed and loved figures in history, Mary, mother of Jesus. Toibin gives new life to the flawless, soft and ever-obedient figure she’s typically portrayed as, making her into a strong and compassionate woman, at times cautious and fearful, at others, resistant and angry. Her relationships with her husband, her son and his disciples, and the other women in town all take on deep thought-provoking complexities. Toibin’s Mary challenges the agreed-upon history of events that took place leading up to and during her son’s death. I love historical re-imaginations, this one was written with insight, imagination and mastery. That kind of book, when being recorded as an audio book, requires a certain caliber of narrator—and Meryl Streep certainly fits the bill.
Streep was perfectly cast in this role. An Academy Award-winning actress, it’s castings like these that force regular audio book listeners to re-evaluate their idea of a “good narration”. Streep’s years of acting experience are present here in full force: I was told by a co-worker that she was exceptional, but I still wasn’t prepared for her expertise and skill. She caught me from the first words (literally, within the first 10 seconds), and held me, minute by minute, through the entire 3 hours. She does not simply narrate this book: it’s a performance, a one-woman show, bolstered by incredible words and a fascinating character, but brought to a new level by the woman delivering it. I almost never say this, but the audio version of The Testament of Mary is a cut above the print version, as good as it is. Streep imbues Toibin’s words with much more emotion, fragility, tenuous strength and love than my silent inner narrator ever could. Sometimes people worry that the narrator influences their personal interpretation of a story too strongly, but in this case, that influence is a gift.
Which audio books do you think are better than the printed versions?