Spoken Word

Rebecca read by Harriet Walter; The Bell Jar read by Fiona Shaw; The Great Gatsby read by Marcus D'Amicio
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The Independent Culture

Rebecca read by Harriet Walter (BBCr, 2hrs, £8.99)

Perhaps with a shrewd eye to Mother's Day, several tape versions of Woman's Hour serials have just been published. Sadly, although The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E M Delafield is one of my favourite books, I can't recommend the dramatised audio version. Elizabeth, the lady in question, sounds like a silly airhead, and the exaggerated archness of the reading ruins the low-key humour of the original. Harriet Walter's definitive reading of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca is in another class altogether. All du Maurier's novels make for compulsive reading, but the Cinderella-crossed-with-Bluebeard tale of how the shy little companion of a bullying nouveau riche American is transformed into the second mistress of Manderley is unforgettable. Recent biographies of du Maurier, and the importance to her of friendships with women, have also added new resonance to the story.

The Bell Jar read by Fiona Shaw (Penguin, c3hrs, £8.99, CD £9.99)

Publishers are increasingly offering spoken-word on CD. Penguin's recently re-launched Modern Classics series is smartly packaged, no doubt with an eye to boosting sales among the teens and twenties market for whom CDs are cooler accessories than paperbacks. Fiona Shaw's clipped, preppy and powerfully precise reading of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar seems set to become a bestseller, in view of the publicity given to her stormy relationship with Ted Hughes. The autobiographical story of how a young society girl in New York watches her own adolescent angst with clinical objectivity, toying with the recurring menace of suicide, suffering ordeal by psychiatry and electric shock, is a timely reminder that Plath was not only quite frighteningly sensitive, but also a wonderful writer, whose phrases ring in the ear unforgettably. But buy the book too: this is a novel that needs to be read as well.

The Great Gatsby read by Marcus D'Amicio (Penguin, c3hrs, £8.99, CD £9.99)

Penguin has also issued Scott Fitzgerald's two famous novels Tender is the Night and The Great Gatsby on CD as well as tape. Kerry Shale reads Tender is the Night splendidly, but if all you know of The Great Gatsby is the recent film and TV versions of the story, it's well worth making time to listen to Marcus D'Amicio's unhurried, thoughtful telling of the tale, a love story of the same legendary stature as Casablanca and Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier. Set in the meretricious glitter of the jazz age, its hero is a mysterious millionaire who lives in the most ostentatious of all the New England mansions on the island of West Egg. As the extent of Gatsby's determination to win the love of Daisy, the girl who has obsessed him all his life, becomes evident, so too does the shallowness of the object of his affections. Our respect and sympathy for Gatsby's remote, lonely figure intensifies and deepens - but there are still layers on layers of mystery to be removed.