I have spent the last thirty five years convinced that I do not like Thomas Hardy. I know how it happened. Reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles when I was in high school and again at university made a lasting - and a negative - impression on me. Admittedly, I went on to read Jude the Obscure and Far from the Madding Crowd, also while I was at university, and quite liked both novels. Notwithstanding this, my dislike of Tess overshadowed whatever appreciation for Hardy's work I might otherwise have developed. The result is that I have not read another of Hardy's novels since leaving university.
Until now. Through one of my Goodreads friends (Thanks Robin!) I discovered that Alan Rickman had narrated The Return of the Native and I decided that if listening to an audiobook narrated by Rickman could not make me like Hardy, then nothing could. After all, I would pay good money to hear Alan Rickman read the telephone directory or the bus timetable, so why not listen to him read Hardy?
What an excellent decision that was, for this was a sublime experience.
First, there's the novel itself. This is Greek or Shakespearean tragedy in the form of a novel. The setting, Egdon Heath, is a character in itself, brought alive by its flora, its fauna, the time of day, the season, the weather conditions and - most of all - those who live there. Then there are the main characters whose lives and dramas are played out on and around the heath: all of them amazingly alive with their passions and their flaws. And there are the secondary characters: those who live in the cottages on the heath who act as both comic relief and Greek chorus. There's the tragedy itself, which is brought about not by evil, but - as tragedy so often is - by misunderstandings and bad timing. The tragedy is lightened somewhat by the conclusion of the novel, which is a happy ending for at least some of the characters. This was not the ending that Hardy initially intended and was apparently a result of the demands of serial publication and the expectations of readers. I think the novel suffers somewhat as a result, but only a little.
Secondly, there's the language of the novel. Hardy eventually gave up writing novels to write poetry and it's clear that the poet was always there in the novelist. The language is rich, complex, with breathtakingly beautiful imagery. Many scenes are so vividly described that I could see them as oil paintings, knowing exactly how the light and shadow would fall on them.
Thirdly, there's Alan Rickman's narration. It is, quite simply, a joy to listen to. Rickman narrates; he does not deliver a bravura acting performance, so his reading is restrained. However, he nevertheless creates distinctive and appropriate voices for the characters, including wonderful West Country accents for the supporting characters. His voice is mesmerising: low, rich and warm. I could listen to it forever.
All in all, as an experiment to see if I could really enjoy a novel by Thomas Hardy, listening to this audiobook has been spectacularly successful. If I had read a text version, I probably would have given it a four star rating, maybe even 3 1/2 stars because of the less than totally satisfactory ending. Listening to Alan Rickman read the book to me has elevated the experience from great to amazing. My only problem is that I may have difficulty finding another audiobook that I will enjoy as much.