Wilde: Back-to-back listening makes for interesting comparison

Jun. 08, 2013 @ 09:39 PM

I gained an interesting perspective when I listened to two books by Chris Bohjalian back to back. I’ve been a fan since his 1998 “Midwives,” but for some reason his 2008 “Skeletons at the Feast” (Random House, 10 CDs, 12 hours) kept sliding to the bottom of my pile. Why? I suspected it might be a tough listen given Bohjalian’s emotive writing. Whatever subject he tackles, he develops characters you care about quickly. And when you’ve just begun to know their inner and outer terrains, he places them in difficult situations. The fact that “Skeletons” was about WWII insured intensity.

I’d let trusted friends audition it as sometimes sending audios on a test drive piques my interest. Skeletons at the Feast came back three times with rave reviews, but each time I was in midst of an engrossing listen and the audio slipped away.

The fourth time it returned, I was preparing for a long solo drive and it seemed the perfect choice for the intense, lengthy audio I craved. Not even 10 miles down the road, I was sucked in.

Bohjalian, as usual, gives a unique perspective. He sets his story during the last years of the war and tells it from several points of view. One thread follows an aristocratic Prussian family escaping invading Russians. The family travels with a burly Scottish POW who soon becomes a love interest for the daughter, Anna.

Another thread shows the French Jewish Cecile, from a concentration camp to a Nazi death march across Germany. Almost as counterpoint, there’s Uri who has escaped from a train headed to Auschwitz. He rescues and finds revenge whenever possible. Bohjalian bases much of this book on diaries of those who lived through the event, and that gives it an authentic feel.

All the characters collide in a difficult, dramatic finale and are challenged to re-invent themselves in war-torn Germany. Moving between the viewpoint characters keeps the terrible specifics powerful and, at the same time, in check. Mark Bramhall’s gifted narration contributes much to the audio’s flow. Within one dialogue, his differing accents and emotions can give strong portrayals of several different characters at the same time. He unites the three story strains seamlessly.

Just as I finished this audio, the newest Bohjalian, “Sandcastle Girls,” (RandomHouseAudio, 9CDs, 11 hours) arrived. The similarities were striking, and so were the differences. The obvious similarity is that, again, Bohjalian writes of war and its horrors and, again, he chooses compelling perspectives.

“Sandcastle Girls” has two female protagonists. The first is Brahmin-background Elizabeth Endicott who accompanies her father to 1915 Aleppo, Syria, to bring aid to Armenian victims of the Ottoman Empire. She falls in love with an Armenian engineer turned soldier. The second protagonist is present day Laura Petrosian, Elizabeth’s great-granddaughter.

Wisely, the audio’s producers chose two excellent narrators --Cassandra Campbell and Alison Fraser. Their voices are complimentary and likeable, and each reader affects different tones to differentiate the eras and personalities. Laura’s first-person portrayal is breezier, she is fraught with understanding her grandmother’s history as well as chauffeuring her children and meeting writing deadlines. The historical part of the novel is in third person and has a much larger range in terms of cast, more fully developed main characters, the mélange of the nationalities, and intensity of the plot.

I don’t know if I would have felt such profound differences if I hadn’t listened to these audios right in a row. As much as I was affected by “Skeletons,” it paled in the light of “Sandcastle Girls.” Perhaps part of this was my ignorance of, as the author refers to this Armenian holocaust as “the slaughter you know next to nothing about.” And the setting takes on even more significance with the latest crises in Syria.

In comparing my listening, I realized that “Sandcastle’s” many subplots connect throughout, so instead of juggling three major plots, one central story gains strength and support. “Skeleton” pans out while “Sandcastle” zoomed in and gave me a deeper sense of being immersed in the story. I felt more fully the terrible ramifications of genocide as well as the story’s ironies. Only back-to-back listening made me see “Skeleton” characters as figureheads, albeit powerful ones, but the “Sandcastle” characters ring truer, more poignant, an audio I’ll longer remember.

Next month, Random House will release Bohjalian’s latest, “The Light in the Ruins,” a 1955 murder mystery in which the digging of a female sleuth returns readers to a 1943 setting. Strong female protagonists, two historical settings promise another audio worth listening to.

Read more at Susie Wilde’s website, ignitingwriting.com.