American-born Paul Theroux had lived in England for 11 years when he realized he'd explored dozens of exotic locations without discovering anything about his adopted home. So, with a knapsack on his back, he set out to explore by walking and by short train trips. The result is a witty, observant and often acerbic look at an ever eccentric assortments of Brits in all shapes and sizes.
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Not Theroux at his Best, but still a Worthy Listen
I'm a fan of Theroux's travel writing, and almost didn't pick this one up after listening to the sample and reading the complaints from the other reviewers about how the British narrator created confusion since Theroux is American.
However, something you may not know about Theroux (I did not) was that he had lived in England for 11 years prior to writing this piece, and the introduction states he had even picked up an English accent. While I'm sure it was not as pure as the narrator's, simply knowing this bit of information helped put me at ease. In addition, Ron Keith is a fine narrator who performs a wide range of regional and class-based accents during the reading, and these accents helped give a sense of where Theroux was, and who he was speaking with, at any given time. This would not have been possible with an American narrator.
As for the content, it is important to remember that this book was written in 1983, when many of the coastal communities in the United Kingdom were in steep decline. Theroux purposefully avoids the touristy spots, not entering even a single castle. Most of his encounters are with the working classes, so this travelogue has a gritty feel to it that one would not get from, for example, Bill Bryson's book (which I found a bit saccharine, as much as I enjoy Bryson).
That said, something about this book left me wanting. I'm not quite sure what is missing here that is present in Theroux's other books; he visits another writer (Jan Morris), and comments on others (some information on Orwell I found particularly interesting). He doesn't comment much on what he is reading, if anything on his journey, and as I write this I've realized that he doesn't describe much "down time" in general, when he's huddled in his room or in a pub at the end of the day -- this travelogue is almost all movement, and thus has a somewhat exhausting feel to it. Theroux feels like he's in a hurry, and you, as reader (or listener), get dragged along with him.
Mind you, Ron Keith is a fine narrator - but he's so miscast as the American protagonist that Kingdom by the Sea is irretrievably sunk. Theroux's book is no mere travelogue; it's an outsider's wryly affectionate study of a foreign culture. The producers of the audio book completely miss the point: Imagine an American's observations on Brits and Britishness - voiced in the first person, but in a British accent. The result is ruinous confusion: an Englishman seems to be studying Englishmen and their oddly foreign ways. What's next for this producer? Casting Kate Hudson to narrate an autiobiography of Winston Churchill?