I've just finished the thrilling new novel by Sam Baker, "The Woman Who Ran", inspired by Anne Bronte's classic "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall". Like the original, Baker's story sees the reclusive and solitary character of Helen Graham arriving in a tiny Yorkshire village, renting the dilapidating Wildfell Hall and sending the local gossips into a frenzy. In both books Helen is trying to escape a dark past but Baker's reimagining is further complicated by Helen's inability to remember what actually as happened to her. Suspense is created through the dispersal of fragmented memories which sporadically return to Helen, taking the reader on a journey from London to Paris, to Syria and Afghanistan as she tries desperately to piece together her past before it catches up with her. Tension is also enhanced by the use of switching between two narrative perspectives; local journalist Gil (the modernised Gilbert) and Helen.
Baker's Helen is a War Photographer. She is a strong woman fighting for a place in a man's world. She is plucky, brave and talented. This makes her present fragile and vulnerable state so confusing and the reader is curious to uncover what has affected her so much. The backdrop of war and its suffering, destruction and pain creates a bleak and oppressive atmosphere which creates tension and a sense of foreboding. The repeated imagery of fire and its suffocating, overwhelming power is sinister and dangerous; a threatening and malevolent presence like that of the shadowy character of Art, her husband. Helen's physical pain of her migraines reflect her conflicted emotional state and the reader is empathetic towards her and the tortured world within which she is imprisoned.
This is a chilling and exciting read. The ending is intense and dramatic and hurtles towards an explosive finale.
It is an excellent retelling of the original story. It is thoughtful, creative, respectful and most importantly, fresh. Baker has breathed modern life into an overlooked novel. She has added depth and sophistication to the original plot and developed more complex characters without losing the essence of Bronte's work. It is hugely readable and a true psychological thriller.
If you enjoyed it, why not try.........
"The Outsider" by Emily Organ was one of my favourite reads in the last twelve months. It tells of American, Yasmin, who falls in love with Daniel and, forgoing her career, follows him back to the UK. There she finds her new life with Daniel is haunted by his wife Lisa, who previously died in a car accident. However, the circumstances of this accident seem shrouded in secrets and Yasmin becomes suspicious about the events surrounding Lisa's death. She sets out to uncover the truth, but at what personal cost....? This book is exceptionally well written with great characters and tension. It is a real page turner and very enjoyable. It has echoes of the fantastic "Rebecca" by Daphne Du Maurier and as with Baker's reimagining, Emily Organ has sensitively and cleverly updated it creating a fresh, modern, engaging thriller. She is a talented new writer and this book is definitely worth reading.
"Longbourn" by Jo Baker isn't strictly a "retelling" but instead is the story of Sarah, a servant at Longbourn, the home of the Bennett family from Austen's "Pride and Prejudice". I really enjoyed this alternative view of events and liked the way the story of "Pride and Prejudice" was merely a backdrop, a shadow of a subplot, to the real happenings in the servants' quarters. Baker evokes a real sense of what it was like to be a servant in the Regency era; their characters and lives as dramatic, emotional and as interesting as the family "upstairs". It's a satisfying read and I'm looking forward to reading Jo Baker's next book.
If you do enjoy Austen then there has been the recent "Austen Project" when novelist such as Joanna Trollope and Val McDermid have each taken one of Austen's five novels and updated them. I felt Trollope's "Sense and Sensibility" was a very weak version; a basic retelling and to some extent just replacing letters with texts. Val McDermid's "Northanger Abbey" had more vitality to it but I also struggled with Alexander McCall Smith's "Emma". I guess it just goes to show what a challenge it is to create something new from very well known, well written novels.
Jane Smiley's "A Thousand Acres" is a fantastic example of how a classic plot can be rewoven into something as equally captivating and powerful. She takes "King Lear" and translates it to a farm in Iowa where the father divides the land between his three daughters. I read this a long time ago but it had a profound effect on me and I remember becoming completely absorbed with the storytelling and the characters. Smiley is a sophisticated writer and this is an impressive book.
This was published in 1999 but if you missed it, is certainly worth a read. It is a sequel to Du Maurier's "Rebecca" and picks up the story from where it was left. Susan Hill is a brilliant writer and her books are always engaging and readable. Here she produces a pleasing follow up which compliments the original, emulates the style of Du Maurier's writing well and maintains credibility of the characters.
Probably the most famous novel which takes inspiration from a classic is "Wild Sargasso Sea". Jean Rhys made the bold decision to write a prequel to "Jane Eyre" exploring the life of Mr Rochester's first wife before they moved to England. It is a very short novel and a very easy read but hugely insightful and thoughtful and makes you look at the characters in a totally different way. Well worth a read, and a reread, and another read! It will make you go back to "Jane Eyre" again too - never a bad thing!
Here are some other titles and the classics they used for inspiration to try too -
- "The Innocents" Francesca Segal (Edith Wharton, Age of Innocence)
- "Lavinia" Ursula K LeGuin (The Aenied)
- "Bridget Jones's Diary" Helen Fielding (Pride and Prejudice)
- "His Dark Materials" Philip Pullman (Milton, Paradise Lost)
- "March" Geraldine Brooks (Alcott, Little Women)
- "Railsea" China Mieville - (Moby Dick)
- "The Hours" Michael Cunningham - (Woolf, Mrs Dalloway)
- "Great" Sara Benincasa - (The Great Gatsby)
- "Dorian, An Imitation" Will Self - (Wilde, A Picture of Dorian Gray)
- "On Beauty" Zadie Smith - (Forster, Howard's End)
- "Solsbury Hill" Susan M Wyler (Bronte, Wuthering Heights)
- "The Flight of Gemma Hardy" Margaret Livesey (Bronte, Jane Eyre)
PS just seen this book - "Thornfield Hall" by Jane Stubbs- it tells the story of Alice Fairfax's arrival to guard the secret in the attic...... the story never told and the story before Jane's arrival....sounds great!!
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