While trying to articulate what I loved so much about one of my favorite audiobooks of the year so far, GREENLAND by David Santos Donaldson, I realized that part of what makes this book so compelling is that it is full of movement. That got me thinking about other books I’ve loved this year, and, sure enough, several of my favorites are about characters on journeys, characters who move from one place to another—not just physically, but emotionally as well. So this month I’m highlighting three audiobooks that feature journeys, often long and arduous ones, across countries and continents. These external journeys set the stage for more complicated internal journeys, in which characters experience all kinds of transformations. It makes for audiobooks that are hard to pause.
BRACE FOR IMPACT, written and read by Gabe Montesanti, is a beautiful memoir about the author’s tumultuous internal journey toward healing and wholeness. But Montesanti’s emotional journey begins with a physical one, when she moves with her partner to St. Louis to start grad school and a new life away from her family. Longing for more queer friends, she joins the local roller derby league. Within this community of fierce, proud, strong women, many of whom are queer, Montesanti finds the space to finally face—and heal from—het childhood trauma, disordered eating, and relationship with her emotionally abusive mother. Her narration is raw and heartfelt; she reads with such openness that listeners can’t help but feel as if they’re right there with her. It’s often painful to listen to, especially the graphic descriptions of physical injury, familial homophobia, and abusive relationships. But Montesanti’s belief in herself and love for her derby family comes through loud and clear, in her direct but vulnerable narration, and in the prose itself, which overflows with pride.
Also focusing on communities of women and internal journeys marked by physical travel is Kelly Barnhill’s lush and magical historical novel WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS. Kimberly Farr narrates most of this fictional memoir in a voice tinged with nostalgia and loss. Mark Bramhall provides an excellent reading of the ephemera scattered throughout—letters, transcripts from Congressional hearings, excerpts of scientific papers, and more. The premise is simple but startlingly powerful: One day in 1955, half a million women spontaneously turn into dragons and leap into the sky. Alex is just a child when it happens, but her life is forever changed by the event, and by her family’s—and the country’s—refusal to talk about it.
Barnhill's prose has a mesmerizing quality that Farr captures perfectly. Her voice is smooth and alluring, sure of itself, which makes the little hiccups and catches, when something especially painful or strange happens, all the more poignant. Alex is an old woman recounting the events of her life, and Farr’s narration highlights both of these characters—the Alex telling the story and the Alex living it—with subtle shifts in tone. Though full of magical details and a richly imagined alternate history, this audiobook is mostly about life-changing and human journeys: from childhood to adulthood, from rage to action, from the home someone is born into to the home they choose.
Of all the journeys depicted in these books, the one undertaken by Kip, the protagonist of David Santos Donaldson’s extraordinary debut novel GREENLAND, is perhaps the most extreme. Kip, brought to life by narrator Theo Solomon, is a queer Afro-Caribbean writer working on a historical novel about Mohammed el Adl, the Egyptian lover of E.M. Forster. In order to meet his deadline, he barricades himself in his Brooklyn basement. From this seemingly isolated place, Kip journeys through space and time—and eventually out of his basement and across the Atlantic—on a quest to find his own voice in a world that routinely tries to silence it.
Solomon slides easily into Kip’s persona, voicing him with a smooth British accent, occasionally punctuated by visceral sighs, exclamations, and wordless expressions of pain and frustration. As Kip’s story slowly merges with Mohammed’s, Solomon merges their two voices, bringing the two characters ever closer together. The last hour of the audiobook is especially moving, as Solomon captures every yearning, painful, beautiful nuance in the conversation between these two Black queer men from different times.