Although it is often true that the better audiobooks are those that sound like they were written for radio rather than for print—the hundred-punches-a-minute dialogue-heavy crime novels of Elmore Leonard, say, or the joke-every-forty-five-seconds nonfictionish yarns of David Sedaris—it is not always true. Once in a while a book full of quiet surfaces defeats the critic’s assumptions about the form, and when this rare thing happens, it is a cause for celebration.
“I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place,” by Howard Norman, is such a book—quiet, strong, introspective, patient, expansive—and it benefits from a sensitive and intelligent reading by Jim Meskimen, a narrator wise enough to avoid the trap of overperformance now endemic to audiobook narrators. Instead, Meskimen allows himself—and the reader—the luxuries of modulation, of attention to the softnesses that turn small rises in volume or pitch into expressive and sometimes emotionally impactful punctuation.
There is plenty of high-octane material in Norman’s memoir. There is an absent father who appears daily at a pharmacy soda fountain without visiting the family who lives in the same town. There is a mother whose basement drawer is crammed with newsletters from the Belfaire Jewish Orphan Home, the place of her raising. A beloved girlfriend dies in a fiery plane crash. A swan is accidentally drowned in a waterfall trap. John Lennon is murdered.
Worst of all is the story of Reetika Vazirani, a poet Norman had only met twice before allowing her to housesit in the company of her two-year-old son Jehan. In the family’s absence, Vazirani kills herself and her son in the dining room and leaves dark diaries in rehearsal of the killings hidden around the house for Norman to find upon his return.
In most memoirs, this event would come first, and the author and publishing house would use it as a selling point. When Norman withholds the story until the end of the book, he is not burying the lede. The true lede belongs to Saigyo, a twelfth-century Japanese poet and monk of Norman’s admiration, who wrote: “A soul that is not confused is not a soul.”
The events that have prompted the confusion in Norman’s soul aren’t the subject of “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place.” The subject, instead, is the self who survives in communion with “beloved landscapes—Northern California, Nova Scotia, Vermont, the Arctic—and of describing how they offered a home for honest introspection, a place to think things through.”
Later, Norman speaks of Henry James’s “visitable past,” by which he meant “sites that had personal meaning to him: graveyards, archaeological ruins, centuries-old cathedrals,” and contrasts these with “memories of places that kept refusing not to visit me—unceremonious hauntings, I suppose, which were in equal measure gifts and curses.”
The listener is put in mind of Alice Munro’s mid-career idea of her stories, which is so pleasingly and willfully counter to the culture of fiction’s frontlist. “A story is not like a road to follow,” Munro once wrote. “It’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It has also a sturdy sense of itself, of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”
That’s as good a description of Norman’s project as I could imagine. Replace the house with a vast landscape, a blue sky extending in every direction, add a compassionate, no-bullshit companion, and that’s what “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place” is. So rarely does this happen, but when I was done listening, I returned to the beginning and started listening again.