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The Gathering

By Nicolas Soames

1 March 2008


We were all excited when the possibility of recording Anne Enright’s Man Booker Prize winner The Gathering emerged, with the help of Julian Batson (of Oakhill Publishing – the NAB library supplier).

All authors will tell you that it is difficult for them to know who should read their novel, for the author inevitably hears the words already. This is especially true of Anne Enright, who was, for many years, a radio producer and therefore accustomed to working with the spoken word.

Surprisingly, she knew exactly who she wanted to read The Gathering – Fiona Shaw! Fortunately, with Macbeth and a wonderful recording of Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels for Naxos AudioBooks behind her, Fiona was only too pleased to pick up the challenge – especially as she had a few weeks’ break from her world tour in the National Theatre production of Beckett’s Happy Days.

Fiona was finishing in the States when we contacted her, and she bought the novel and read it on the plane. She was totally absorbed by the lively, imaginative writing, as well as stirred by the intensity of the family story, and looked forward to getting into the studio.

So did Anne, who flew over especially for the occasion.

Now, most recordings happen as planned. The actor meets the producer in the studio, and off they go! But sometimes it doesn’t happen quite like this, and sometimes unplanned interruptions happen at the worst time – when the author is present!

Our normal studio in north London was full and couldn’t make space, so we went into another studio which we have used successfully before. Fiona settled in and we did the normal sound check. Her main concern, she admitted, was how her natural Cork accent would sound to Anne, who was due about an hour later – after all, The Gathering is very clearly about a Dublin family, and Dubliners have a very different way of speaking to natives of Cork.

She need not have worried. When Anne arrived, she settled into the control room and listened with pleasure as her prize-winning novel came to life. As an experienced radio producer (as well as the author!), she was able to contribute meaningfully to the proceedings, rather than intruding.

But then came the steel pipes. Opposite the studio was a building site. And on that very day, they were taking a delivery of ten-metre steel pipes. At about 11.30, everything started going. Long lorries arrived with pipes and men; cranes swung round with great steel manacles which clanged on to the pipes and lifted two or three, jangling, into the air.

Cacophony.

The men called, a cement lorry with an exhaust issue trundled down the mews – and so it went on. An edginess entered the studio. Great things were happening, only to be undermined by the interference.

After a morning of this, which was long enough for author and reader to exchange ideas and come to a harmonious understanding, we gave up.

We started again the following day in our normal studio, Motivation Sound, which had now miraculously cleared its decks.

The curious thing was that neither Fiona nor I minded going through those opening pages again. It is the sign of a well-written book, of course. But it was highlighted by the number of times that Fiona would read something and stop, as she turned a page, and comment: ‘that was a Man Booker Prize-winning sentence!’

We felt a particular satisfaction because this was an unabridged reading. It is sometimes necessary to abridge for audiobook: occasionally because the novel is just too big to do commercially, and sometimes because some listeners do not want to be faced with twenty or more hours.

But The Gathering, while certainly substantial, is not very long at seven and three-quarter hours unabridged.

And in the voice of Fiona Shaw, there is an extra dimension.

Nicolas Soames


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