Audiobook of the week: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf, read by Juliet Stevenson

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The Independent Culture

In summer in the Hebrides, the slanting rays of the setting sun light up the attic bedrooms of a big old house on Skye, revealing "bats, flannels, straw hats, inkpots, paint pots, beetles and the skulls of small birds". The house gathers and enfolds numerous members of the Ramsay family and their heterogeneous entourage.

Written in 1927 when she was 45, To The Lighthouse may well be Virginia Woolf's greatest novel, though its style has deterred many a resolute reader. The writing is intensely musical, with the classic three-movement structure of a symphony. In the first a family holiday is disturbed by premonitions; 10 years later, two women briskly set about rescuing the house from disintegration. Finally, battered remnants of the old group arrive for a last holiday and the youngest son achieves his original, now redundant ambition, and sets out in a boat with his father and sister, to visit the lighthouse.

Juliet Stevenson lifts Woolf's prose to another plane. Her voice itself is lovely, low and resonant. Though she never overdoes it, she gives each character a distinct identity and measured consideration: the listener's sympathies move from one to another, quietly and utterly absorbed. The book, which was already fine, becomes exquisite: a wise and melancholy work of mesmerising eloquence.

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