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3 Transformative Audiobooks

It’s always a pleasure when I listen to three audiobooks close together that happen to riff on similar ideas and themes. I was thinking about transformation and all the ways it manifests in our lives while I listened to PAGEBOY, and then a few days later I read CHLORINE—a book all about a girl who turns herself into a mermaid. This strange and creative take on transformation reminded me of POMEGRANATE, which I’d listened to a few weeks before. It’s also about a life-changing transformation, though a much more ordinary one. All three of these audiobooks, through very different genres, explore what it means to change.

PageboyIt’s always a pleasure to listen to a professional actor read a memoir, and Elliot Page’s narration of PAGEBOY is top-notch. His voice is open and honest and full of emotion, whether it’s grief, amusement, anger, or joy. He recounts affairs and relationships he’s had with famous actors, behind-the-scenes stories from the sets of various movies, and some of the truly awful sexist, homophobic, and transphobic encounters he’s had in Hollywood. But he also gets vulnerable about gender identity, his ever-changing relationship to queerness, childhood trauma, disordered eating, and the challenges he’s faced as a closeted and now highly visible trans actor. It’s in these more intimate memories that his voice truly shines. The nonlinear way the book unfolds only adds to the audiobook’s conversational tone—it feels natural, like Page is sitting with a friend, sharing important moments from his life as they arise. It’s a beautiful, surprising structure that highlights all the transformations—some tiny and some monumental—that Page has experienced throughout his life so far.

ChlorinePAGEBOY is the story of dozens of ongoing transformations, between and among ages and identities. CHLORINE is the opposite. Jade Song’s debut novel, read beautifully by Catherine Ho and Imani Parks, is the story of one transformation. Catherine Ho gives a chilling yet emotive performance in this queer coming-of-age story, fully embodying the persona of Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who devotes her life to training, convinced the only way she can truly be herself is to become a mermaid. Ho’s voice has a cold flatness to it that reflects Ren’s loneliness and alienation, but there’s also a beguiling strength and directness in her narration that captures Ren’s fierce belief in herself. Her haunting performance is interrupted by the bright, effortlessly warm voice of Imani Parks, who reads the letters Ren’s best friend Kathy sends to Ren after she disappears. Song uses a blend of horror, fantasy, and realism to explore big questions about girlhood, violence, trauma, and what transformation actually means. It’s an unforgettable audiobook.

PomegranateIf you’re looking for something free of body horror and without speculative elements, Helen Elaine Lee’s novel POMEGRANATE is a quietly powerful story about Ranita, a Black queer woman who’s just gotten out of prison and is determined to get her life back together. It’s centered around one of the most profound kinds of transformation that people experience: healing. Machelle Williams narrates the sections told in the present as Ranita goes about her daily life: reconnecting with family, getting a job and new apartment, going to NA meetings, and visiting with her kids in the hopes of regaining custody. Ranita's complex, nuanced character is what makes this book so memorable, and Williams fully embodies all of her moods—exasperated and loud, sarcastic and sharp, silly and full of joy, burned out and angry, tender and vulnerable. Janina Edwards, who narrates sections told in the past, adds depth to the story with her thoughtful characterization of a younger Ranita and the many people in her life. Through alternating performances, listeners get a full sense of Ranita as a person and both the mistakes she’s made and the trauma she’s suffered. POMEGRANATE is a beautiful, generous ode to all the work that goes into transforming yourself and your life, especially when the system is stacked against you.

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