Before attending the Sydney Writers' Festival earlier this year, I had never head of Scottish poet and author Jackie Kay. But I had time between the events I had planned on going to and decided to go along to her Q&A session, because I was interested in the subject matter of how the imagination helps us to cope in distressing situations. The session began with her reading from her new collection of short stories, Reality, Reality. I was immediately blown away by the story itself and her delivery of it. There was so much heart and humour in both. After the reading, Kay answered questions from both the facilitator and the audience. I came away in awe of not just her talent but her spirit - she radiated joy, compassion and wisdom. This was especially the case when discussing her memoir, Red Dust Road, the story of her search for her birth parents. I came away desperately wanting to read it - as did everyone else, apparently, because by the time I got to the bookshop downstairs it had sold out! I bought Trumpet instead with the intention to get Red Dust Road down the track, if I actually enjoyed Kay's writing as much as I enjoyed listening to her talk.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and Audible.com ran a free trial that allowed the download of one audiobook. Remembering that Jackie Kay narrated the audiobook of Red Dust Road herself, I was eager to check it out. I didn't even finish listening to the sample before I downloaded it. I had to stop myself from listening to the whole thing immediately, because I had committed to reading nothing but Netgalley this month. But a couple of nights later I found myself lying awake at 2am and decided to try listening to Red Dust Road to switch my mind off. An hour later I realised my sleep strategy hadn't worked, because I was too engaged with the story and actually wanted to stay awake to keep listening!
This was my first audiobook and I think it was a great place to start. I found it hard to put down. It was such a delight. Kay's narration is wonderful - engaging, dramatic, humorous and all the more meaningful because this is her story. She relates anecdotes as if she's talking to a friend, and it's incredibly touching. The language she uses is evocative and lovely. In fact, that was one downside of an audiobook - there were several quotes I would have underlined and reread repeatedly if I had a physical copy in front of me. It was just such gorgeous writing.
Another small downside of the audiobook, although perhaps it would have felt this way with a physical book, was that it was hard at times to keep track of when events were happening. It's told in a non-linear way, jumping back and forth between decades, and so it was a little bit confusing in places. On the plus side, this did enhance the conversational nature of the book, with scenes flowing naturally and not necessarily chronologically, just as they do when you hear anecdotes from someone in real life.
As for the story itself, I found Kay's search for her birth parents, and her mixed feelings about it, to be quite fascinating. The way she describes her Nigerian birth father in particular is colourful and quite hilarious. His treatment of her - and to an extent, her birth mother's reaction to her - are obviously and understandably sources of some pain. But she is able to find humour, joy and even beauty in every situation. It reinforced my impression that she's a remarkable woman.
And no wonder. Her parents - the Scottish couple who adopted her - are clearly remarkable people, too. I loved that a big part of the book is dedicated to them and their love for Kay - and hers for them. She seems to have inherited her delightful humour from them, with many of their interactions making me laugh out loud, but there were also times when I felt myself getting all misty-eyed due to the things they said or did. One instance that sticks out is when Kay's mother, upon hearing that someone told the young Jackie to be thankful she was adopted by her parents, insisted, "No, Jackie, don't ever let anyone tell you that you should be grateful. It is WE who are grateful."
Red Dust Road is a beautiful tale of family and what makes us who we are. It is about belonging and love and grief and identity. It is about an extraordinary woman from an extraordinary family, full of warmth and humour and love. It is not only one of my favourite books of the year - it's probably up there with my favourite of all time.
Here is a clip of Kay reading from Red Dust Road, telling the story of her religious, Nigerian birth father quizzing her on her sex life.
Published: 2011, Whole Story Audiobooks
Get It: Audible