Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Book at Bedtime

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Book at Bedtime

Article excerpt

Credit: Kate Chisholm

There I was trapped in the bathroom at 10.55 p.m., unable to leave for fear of missing anything. The time it would have taken me to get to the bedroom, touch the screen of the digital radio, encouraging it to dawdle its way into life, was just too long, too risky. Vital information in the story might have been lost. The tension, created by that single voice holding me on a thread, would have been dissipated.

It came as a surprise. Book at Bedtime (Radio 4, Monday to Friday evenings) is often such a disappointment these days that the radio gets switched off at 10.51 (after six minutes you know for sure that whatever is being read is not going to get any better). The last few books, in particular, have been too mannered, the writing too stylised, the reading itself too clunky, too raw for this time of night. In some ways that's a relief. Years ago -- before iPlayer -- I had to stop listening to Book at Bedtime because it was so frustrating to be drawn in night-by-night only to miss an episode because I was not home in time. With some books (Turgenev, Winifred Holtby, Bernard MacLaverty) it would make me want to leave things early, or even not go at all. It was not so much that I needed to know what was going to happen (I could always go find the book), but I wanted that fix, that particular experience -- the consolation of a great story, beautifully told, lulling the mind into sleepfulness.

Louise Welsh's A Lovely Way to Burn , though, had an immediate impact. It was not a book I would ever have picked up in the bookshop, not being a fan of sci-fi or thrillers, let alone a combination of both genres. It was actually this disjuncture between what I usually like and what I found myself drawn into that made the whole thing more compelling, more effective. From the first words, 'Stevie Flint had lived in London for seven years. She no longer had the soundtrack to the movie of her life playing in her head,' I was hooked. It was so direct, so simple, so unwriterly. It felt like we were in safe hands, this was not going to disappoint.

Yet I have to admit it was all a bit fantastical. We're in London at some time in the future. Stevie works for a shopping channel on TV and when we meet her she is tottering across Soho in a pair of high-heeled sandals. …

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