Audiobooks: Boys, bodices and awful balloons

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The Independent Culture

In July 1910, the Canadian Pacific liner Montrose left Antwerp, bound for Quebec. On board was a Mr Robinson, travelling with his son. Three days out the captain sent a wire to Liverpool alerting the police to his suspicions that these two gents were not what they seemed: that they were in fact the notorious murderer Dr Crippen and his accomplice Ethel Le Neve. The resultant arrest, by gallant Inspector Dew of the Yard, was the first to be precipitated by wireless telegraph.

So far, so well known. However, after the event Captain Kendall wrote his own story of that tense, suspicious voyage. The details sparkle with authentic serendipity, melodrama and bathos. He first noticed something odd through his porthole, he recalls, when he espied the "Robinsons" holding hands behind a lifeboat. Cunningly, he invited them to his table, then slipped into their cabin and discovered the damning evidence: "the boy had been using a piece of a woman's bodice as a face-flannel."

Betrayed by lingerie. Yet that abused bodice is less the stuff of legend than of personal memory. The gallant Captain is one of 60 amateur reporters who just happened to be there when extraordinary things were going on and whose stories form the most hilarious, tragic and gripping audio-book of recent years. Matthew Lewin's compilation They Saw It Happen (Naxos: cassettes £11.99; four-CD set £16.99) is pure history, raw and undigested. It begins as the bold, laconic Spartans defend Thermopylae and it ends in Auschwitz: there is all the wide and weary wealth of human experience in between.

As always with Naxos publications, the accompanying music, programmed by Sarah Butcher, is apt, unexpected and as potent as the words. A small cast of actors perform surprising vocal aerobatics and - although somebody narrates a Parisian view of a public hanging sounding scarily like a French Brian Sewell - there isn't really a dud. Just sample the volatile, supremely Italian Vicenzo Lunardi, in 1784, nervously eating chicken and drinking gallons of wine aboard the first, "highly awful" balloon, flying from Moorfield to South Mimms: it is superb.

In similar vein, a huge cast contributes to Poems for Refugees (CSA TellTapes £9.99; two-CD set £11.99). This could be one of the most enduring projects to arise from the smouldering ruins of September 2001. Starting with a shudderingly powerful poem by the frequently underrated Wendy Cope, many - maybe all - of our greatest actors and writers have contributed poems, be they new, or famous, or old but unfamiliar: their royalties go to the charity War Child. Sometimes the contributors simply read the poems, occasionally they offer a paragraph about their choice. Though there are moments of mad light relief (viz John Hegley), the whole makes for a sumptuous banquet of the best of English poetry, reflective, melancholy and elegiac. The mood is epitomised by Eileen Atkins's spare and intelligent recital of Matthew Arnold's masterpiece "Dover Beach". As she remarks afterwards, "ignorant armies" are still inclined to clash by night - and a true love is probably the greatest thing that this life offers us. It doesn't sound trite.

Saira Shah knows about ignorant armies. The author, narrator and subject of The Storyteller's Daughter (Penguin £9.99), she grew up in prosaic Tunbridge Wells but her father was a proud Afghan who instilled in her fabulous dreams of an idyllic Afghanistan, fertile and beautiful. Rediscovering this gorgeous place became her mission. As soon as she could, she set off, travelling through wild, inhospitable terrain, often under fire; but when, at last, she arrived in the Promised Land she found it smashed and beaten into dust, blowing about in the aftermath of war.

This is a wise book, full of insight and perception, of hopes undimmed more often than dashed and of wicked gallows humour. Every Afghan, she learns, wants to be a hero: every Arab to be a martyr. And the Afghan who offered her this aphorism chuckled as he completed it: "We help them along by putting them in the front line."

Stories, traditionally, are the realm of fiction. Three recent novels play with the relationship between narrator and tale, fiction and truth. When even the relative certainty of those who "saw it happen" must be filtered through each witness's ability and motivation, an omnipotent novelist might make justifiable claims to a higher truth. William Trevor's child-heroine in The Story of Lucy Gault (Penguin £9.99) grasps her life by the tail and twists it: for the rest of her days she atones for such radical intervention. Lucy's is, to some extent, Everywoman's fate: compelled to make the best of things beyond her control, she finds her own, unconventional quiescence. The rhythmic grace of Trevor's style is well served by the lyrical beauty of Frances Tomelty's reading.

Anita Shreeve also asks what a storyteller should do with her material, at the start of Strange Fits of Passion (Orion £12.99), her compelling, disturbing account of a murder committed within an apparently sublime marriage. Her narrator covered the original case: 20 years on, this journalist asks for forgiveness, fearing that her own article might have influenced its outcome. Tara Ward is the battered wife, Lorelei King the journalist.

King reappears as sole narrator of the novel which won a coveted gold at last week's Spoken Word Publishers' Association awards, the audio Oscars. The book is Unless (HarperCollins £12.99), the last to be written by the late Carol Shields. Its narrator has three teenage daughters, the oldest of whom has taken to begging on a street-corner. By the end we know why. Nothing else, to speak of, happens. Yet these few hours of listening offer an intensity of distilled wisdom. Strung out on the tension of dread, Shields writes - and King reads - with consummate discretion, profundity, humour and elegant precision about ambition, family and the desperation of helpless love - though such clunking terms do little justice to this chiselled masterpiece of anguish and appreciation. Suffice to say that you just might lend this audio to your very best friend. But you will certainly fret until you get it back.

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