It had begun to look as if Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime had been taken over by the zealous publicity-hungry PRs of publishing. For the past few months we’ve had nothing but the latest John le Carré, Neil Gaiman, Mohsin Hamid and Jami Attenberg. Books that would sit better in the morning Radio 4 slot as Book of the Week have been foisted upon us at 10.45 p.m., just when we want to start winding down from the hectic day, to escape from the traffic and fumes of the internet-bound life into which most of us have sunk.
What we need post washing-up, dog walk, news, last texts, tweets and blogs is not bracing new writing, stuffed full of our worst imaginings and post-9/11 fear and loathing. Let that be aired when the day is still light and there’s no time to reflect on what we’ve just heard. After dark, at bedtime, we need winding-down and escape, with strong storylines and writing that moves us to feel because of the way the words have been strung together. We need to hear books that have been tested by time; writing that has endured because of its cleverness, its imagination, its lushness of tone.
This week and next, though, we have been given a rare treat at 10.45: a ten-part radio reading of a 1930s classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora Neale Hurston takes us down into the Deep South of the USA at the height of segregation to write about the life of Janie, a young black woman, married off by her grandmother, a former slave, to a landowning man to avoid the fate of her mother, raped by a white man at 16. That makes it sound as if we’re in for a grim study of oppression, repression and depression. Far from it. Hurston inspires, because of her love for people, and her love of literature. She must have read to be taken out of herself and inside the lives of others because that’s how she wrote. As we listen to Janie’s story, we find ourselves also in the hot and steamy South, we become Janie.
She has come back to the town she grew up in after two disappointing, disillusioning marriages and a love-blessed two-year affair with a man called Tea Cake that ends in…you’ll have to listen to find out. It was dusk, the time for sitting on the porch, as Janie walks back along the road to her old home, watched by her neighbours, desperate to know where she’s been, what fate has dealt her. ‘These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human.’ They’re also ready to pass judgment. ‘It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking together like harmony in a song.’
Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance group of black writers, but her intention was not to create a treatise on black life in America, as much political as fictional. She simply wanted to tell Janie’s story; to create a black woman’s voice and fix it in the American canon of literature. The strength of her writing depends not on the fact that she was a woman writing about being black but on her gift for telling a story and her enviable way of conjuring up images, putting words together.
She once said of her intention in writing: ‘Roll your eyes in ecstasy and ape his every move, but until we have placed something upon his street corner that is our own, we are right back where we were when they filed our iron collar off.’ No doubt about her meaning; no question about her gift for putting words together. She wanted to tell it as she saw it.
Down in the Everglades a wind brews up, the animals start looking for higher ground, the waters of the lake rise up. Janie and Tea Cake are trapped in a scene straight out of the Flood. ‘The mother of malice had trifled with man…It was the meanest moment of eternity.’
A great book, then, read brilliantly by Adjoa Andoh, one of the unsung heroes of radio drama. Rarely a week passes without her voice being heard, yet her name is hardly known. This week alone she can be heard in the dramas on Monday afternoon and Tuesday afternoon, as well as each night at 10.45. Hurston’s novel must have been a challenge to read, full of voices, speaking in the slow drawl of the South, some old, some young, some mean, some full of pity. Andoh creates them all, drawing us in by the mesmerising rhythm of her voice, relishing the magic contained in the writing. Such simplicity of effort, a single voice telling a story. But what richness of effect.
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