Each of us has only a quantum of compassion

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
by John le Carré

Audiobook read by Michael Jayston

Many years ago I was sent a free copy of this novel (I think as a welcome gift to one of those book-buying clubs; I loved those when I was a teenager with my first part-time job) and I turned my nose up at it. It sat for years on the bookshelf and is probably still there at my Dad’s house faded and unread. Then when the film came out last year one of the newspapers offered the audiobook free to its readers, so I downloaded the mp3s and finally got round to listening to it over the past few weeks.

I have discovered more about me and audiobooks, I suspect, than I have about the book itself. Because it turns out I’m not great at listening to audiobooks, especially not during my commute (when I usually listen to podcasts). My mind wanders; I don’t always have a free hand to turn up the volume when the traffic noise drowns out the narrator; if I see someone I know I get chatting and fumble over hitting pause. I had more success listening to it at home while doing housework or, my favourite discovery, while having a bath (so much better than getting a nice book wet!). But even when giving it my full attention without distracting background noise, I still struggled a little. I think I just don’t take in information as well audibly as I do when I read it. I missed being able to flick back through the pages to check a name or other detail. I missed marking quotes I liked. Which was a real shame because there were some gems in here. I cribbed these off Goodreads:

“’I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,’ Smiley went on, more lightly. ‘Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to the centre of things.’”

“The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal.”

For those who haven’t read the book/seen the film/watched the TV show, this novel follows George Smiley, a spy who was forced into early retirement from MI6, as he is persuaded to help former colleagues track down a mole within the British ranks. Le Carré really brings alive the day-to-day existence of a spy, often humdrum, occasionally explosively exciting, always suspicious. I loved the language of Le Carré spycraft – how MI6 is “the circus” because it is (fictionally) located at Cambridge Circus in London; how babysitter, caretaker, janitor and mother are all euphemisms for jobs within the circus (there are others too that I missed; see this list for more); and terms I remembered from the brilliant children’s book I had of spycraft, which I think was a forerunner of the Usborne Spy’s Guidebook.

The story is heavily political, with real ambiguity about whether any of what any of the spies is doing is of use to their country, or humanity at large. There’s a lot of men talking in rooms, as I believe Mark Kermode said of the film, and what action there is is in flashback. There are two main narrative threads – the main one following Smiley and an occasional one following a former spy called Jim Prideaux, who is now working as a schoolmaster at a boarding school in Somerset and has developed a sweet facsimile of a spymaster–apprentice relationship with one of the boys there. The latter thread was more immediately accessible and has made me interested in Le Carré’s earlier novel A Murder of Quality, which sees Smiley investigate a murder at a boarding school. (Incidentally, I hadn’t realised this wasn’t the first Smiley novel and now hope I can read the earlier ones without plot points having been spoiled for me.)

Michael Jayston’s narration was spot-on and it was only a small surprise to discover that he played a main role in the 1979 TV series. I loved his voice for Smiley, a quiet, almost bored, quickly forgettable tone perfectly in keeping with Le Carré’s description.

I wish I could properly assess Le Carré’s writing but, aside from knowing that there were many brilliant phrases that stood out for me, I don’t think listening to the words allows me to be sure of my reaction the way reading them would.

First published 1974 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Voices

The Help
by Kathryn Stockett

Audiobook narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer and Cassandra Campbell

A few weeks ago the Guardian offered readers this audiobook as a free download via Audible. Well, I couldn’t say no to that, could I? This book was even on my wishlist. Perfect.

This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to in years and it’s a very different experience from reading, so I still can’t say for sure whether I would have enjoyed reading this book. Probably, but I can’t be certain. However, I loved the audiobook. It’s a gripping story, with lots of wonderful characters and the narrators did a fantastic job of bringing it to life. Really, this felt more like a radio play than a read, but it was more immersive and captivating than any radio play I can remember.

The story is narrated by three characters, plus there is one chapter told in third person, and those are the four voice actors. Each narrates their own chapters in full, putting on different voices for the different people they talk about, so you hear some characters voiced three or even four different ways. It sounds confusing but it isn’t really.

The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s. White women throw themselves into the busy schedule of society events, setting up their unmarried friends with suitable partners and having babies, while their coloured maids raise those babies, clean their houses and cook their meals. No-one questions this state of things or tries to change it, even while the rest of the USA is discovering civil rights, but beneath the surface, tensions are high between the communities. Nasty things happen to anyone who steps out of line, and the line is narrow.

Narrator number one is Aibileen, maid to Elizabeth Leefolt, a vacuous woman whose eagerness to please centre of society and “League” president Hilly Holbrook makes her an increasingly difficult and even dangerous employer. Narrator number two is Minnie, another maid, who near the start of the book is fired by Hilly Holbrook on behalf of her aged mother and must find another job while Hilly is spreading lies all over town about her. Narrator number three is Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan, an old schoolfriend of Elizabeth and Hilly and the only one to make it through college – the others left to get married. She is a slightly awkward woman, convinced by her mother’s constant sniping that she is too tall, too plain and too lacking in taste to ever attract a man. So instead she lives with her parents and sticks to her routine of League events and tennis at the country club, keen to be a part of it all.

At the start of the book Elizabeth and Skeeter seem quite similar – nice enough, thrown by Hilly’s nasty comments about black people but pretty clueless about the world really. But a combination of things make their paths diverge. Skeeter is intelligent while Elizabeth is dumb, but Elizabeth is a central member of society by being married and a mother, while Skeeter, by being single and resisting attempts to change that, is held at arms’ length from society. When Skeeter pitches article ideas to a New York publisher and touches on civil rights, she is only raising the topics she thinks the publisher wants to hear about. But then she starts to look around her and find out what is actually going on, and is shocked into taking sides.

The three narrators are warm, funny, wonderful characters – at least, once they get to have their own say they are. But there’s also a large cast of further characters running the whole gamut from scheming and vindictive, complacent and therefore complicit, genuinely good but afraid to stand out from the crowd, and many others inbetween. There’s a violent husband, a loving husband, an absent husband. There’s white outsiders besides Skeeter. All are fully fleshed out and real (though that may be due to good acting as much as good writing).

I thought I knew the facts about civil rights, about the divisions and the violence and the politics, but this book brought to life what it must have really been like, the genuine life-threatening danger of being different, just 50 years ago in a so-called civilised country. It’s terrifying but it’s also wonderful to see how brave people could be, had to be, in the face of awfulness. And yet, in spite of the huge, dark issues, this is a warm, uplifting book.

When I first downloaded the audiobook I didn’t know how I would find time to listen to over 17 hours of it. That’s a lot of time. But I downloaded the Audible app so I could listen on my phone and it has been my companion for two weeks – walking to work, doing housework, taking the train – all to the soundtrack of Mississippi accents drawing me into a world that I was genuinely sad to leave behind.

The film rights were snapped up pretty quickly and I believe The Help (film) has already been released in the US, while in the UK we have to wait until October. I’m intrigued but so much will have to be cut. Hmm.

Book first published 2009.

UPDATE: There has been some controversy surrounding this book and a great discussion has started over on Amy Reads and Wolfs Howl, who are also running a related reading project. Very illuminating.