Magazine article The Spectator

Bedtime Stories

Magazine article The Spectator

Bedtime Stories

Article excerpt

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 Carre, 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. …

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