“The Dragons, the Giant, the Women,” by Wayétu Moore. (Brilliance Audio, unabridged, 7¾ hours)
Wayétu Moore’s artfully constructed memoir is one of the year’s most beautifully written and moving books. Beginning in 1990 in Monrovia, Liberia, we find 5-year-old Wayétu seeing events through a lens of longing and myth. As the country shatters into civil war, she pines for her mother, absent in New York on a scholarship. Suddenly, rebel troops appear on the family’s street and Wayétu, her two sisters, her grandparents and her father flee on foot, leaving practically everything behind. So begins a punishing trek alongside other refugees on roads lined with the bodies of murdered people. Moore builds terrific suspense, alternating this story with that of her later life in America, of culture shock and the effects of war trauma. In a superb change of approach, she switches toward the end to her mother’s point of view in New York — her fear for her family and resourcefulness and courage in getting them to America. Tovah Ott brings a fine, versatile voice to the narration, capturing character and mood, especially in Wayétu’s voice as a child, her unfolding sense of bafflement, sorrow, terror and eventual joy.
“The Mirror & the Light,” by Hilary Mantel. (Macmillan, unabridged, 38¼ hours)
Hilary Mantel’s final volume of her trilogy based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s right-hand man, begins with Anne Boleyn’s decapitated body and a courtier slipping away to tell the impatient king he is now free to marry Jane Seymour. Cromwell, who managed the entire business, is at the zenith of his power, but, history, ever the spoiler, tells us that only four years remain before he, himself, loses his nimble noggin. Our sense of doom mounts as, after Jane’s death, Cromwell arranges Henry’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves, thus galvanizing the unfortunate fixer’s enemies to arrange his downfall. Although the previous two volumes have already been handled by different narrators, Ben Miles — Group Captain Peter Townsend in “The Crown” — has, in addition to narrating this final volume, taken on the massive task of delivering “Wolf Hall” and “Bring up the Bodies,” as well. He also played Cromwell in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of “Wolf Hall Parts One & Two,” and captures again the man’s voice, its taint of baseness, its ups and downs and quiet ruthlessness.
“The Book of Eels,” by Patrik Svensson. (HarperAudio, unabridged, 6½ hours)
Translated from the Swedish by Agnes Broome, Patrik Svensson’s book combines scientific and cultural history with a memoir of his father, a road paver, who died at 60 from cancer caused by decades of exposure to the fumes of hot asphalt. Svensson has, quite stunningly, discovered in the natural and human history of the European eel a metaphor for his father’s life and a way to explore questions of knowledge, belief and faith. A most peculiar character, the eel goes through four distinct phases of being, the last of which involves replacing its digestive system with reproductive organs. Thus equipped, it heads off for the Sargasso Sea whence it came and where it will breed — or is thought to breed, as no mating eels have ever been discovered. Alas, like so many creatures, the eel is endangered, most likely because of environmental mayhem. Alex Wyndham narrates this revelatory, amusing, often poignant amalgam of science and family history in a dark, undulant baritone, a voice that could be that of a big, kindly eel.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, reviews for the Star Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, and elsewhere. She writes this column for the Washington Post.