Thursday, 10 March 2016

My Review of "Jane Steele" by Lyndsay Faye



Jane Steele

"Of all my murders, committed for love or better reasons, the first was the most important..... Autobiographies depend on truth but I have been lying for such a long lonesome time..."

These are the opening lines from the most unnerving, chilling voice of Jane Steele. Having read them, it was impossible to concentrate on anything else and I was immediately captivated by this malevolent narrator who had learnt to "act as a wolf in girl's clothing" and become formed into a "pale, wide eyed creature." The animal imagery immediately alerts the reader to the danger this woman poses to anyone who crosses her path.

It is Victorian England and the young woman, Jane Steele, has been rereading "Jane Eyre" with whom she has much in common. She suffered cruelly at the hands of her aunt and school teacher. Like Eyre, she is called wicked - but in this case, the accusations are true. When Jane sees that her aunt has died and the property of Highgate House is now owned by Mr Thornfield who needs a governess, she decides to apply for the post; convinced that she is the rightful heir to the house. But once there, once she meets Thornfield, everything changes. Can Jane fall in love without having to reveal her murderous past?

Steele's narrative is eloquent and shocking; full of articulate descriptions and honest statements. She knows who she is and what she is. She is not shamed by it. She is intelligent and full of bitter resentment and a sense of injustice. She is a dangerous concoction and she wastes no time letting the reader know that she is a dark soul. Faye has created a sophisticated sociopath who perhaps is more of an "accidental vigilante" (S Rindell) than a completely heartless serial killer yet she both terrifies and intrigues the reader at the same time.

Her voice is enthralling and chilling. "Though I no longer presume to have a conscience, I have never once lacked feelings," Jane explains. When her mother died she felt as if "skilful knives had carved the heart out of me, leaving me empty. I could not claw my way out of the horror of it." And so begins her "morbid hobby" of dwelling on her mother's death and lying comes as "easily as breathing." Jane recounts her childhood, life with her aunt and cousin and her years at the most brutal school with the skill of the most accomplished storyteller. Her past can go some way to explaining her dark, damaged and cold personality but her determination to be evil is unsettling: "I will be another embodied disaster." It's oddly refreshing to read a novel where the protagonist, through which we are seeing the world, is so blunt about her actions and behaviour. But strangely, despite all this, she manages to remain likeable and compelling. Steele regularly speaks directly to us; "Reader, would you prefer me to have felt remorse in the aftermath of my second slaughter?" I found this actually created a touch of (dark) humour and sometimes much needed lightness, as well as cementing a deeper affiliation between the reader and Jane. She is a confident, strong, focussed woman who has overcome some very traumatic events in her life which have shaped her twisted view of the world.

Volume Two moves to 1851 and 25 year old Jane arrives at Highgate House to work as governess to the 9 year old ward of Mr Thornfield. Jane's first question about him is "I wonder if I were to kill this very intriguing man how difficult he would make the task?" Her meeting with him on the path in the woods when she is thrown from her horse is a brilliant reimagining of the exact scene from the original "Jane Eyre" and her detailed observations about Mr Thornfield make him easy to visualise. As they begin to get to know each other, although she tries to deny it, Jane is falling in love with her master. And here begins her biggest dilemma yet. Falling in love with him would mean confessing the truth about herself and she can't bear "that he should only ally himself with evil unawares." I loved this clever inversion. In the original novel by Bronte, it is Jane who is unaware of the evil at Thornfield Hall; it is Rochester who tricks her. I liked the idea that in this story the power is with the female character.

Faye adds further mysticism and suspense to her retelling of Bronte's story by incorporating a more exotic aspect. Thornfield's cast of servants are Sikh and there are references and tales about a more "foreign land" making the residents and secrets of the house more intriguing and tantalising. Highgate House also has a cellar from which Jane is banned from visiting. Clearly this is not going to stop her, particularly as she is aware of midnight wanderings and strange noises emitting from below.

I'm not saying anymore. I don't want to spoil the rest of the plot and it's ingenious twists and revelations.

This is a truly gripping and riveting novel. It is not a sequel to "Jane Eyre", it is not a reimagining. It is something completely different. Faye has taken the most unsettling, sinister aspects of Bronte's story and then with the classic features of the gothic horror genre has produced something unique and original. There is also a dose of satirical humour and more ironic tone in some of Steele's observations and remarks. Her skill at creating such an enigmatic, intriguing and captivating character is impressive and shows her to be a very talented writer. Steele's voice reminded me of John Fowles' "Collector" and the recent "You" by Caroline Kepnes; although both there murderous voices belong to male protagonists and perhaps this is what makes Faye's book stand out a little more as it is more challenging about convention and expectation.

Faye has clearly researched the era in depth as her attention to detail and language roots you very firmly in Victorian period and the novel feels very authentic and realistic. The characters are all convincing. The locations easy to visualise. Faye's depiction of Steele's time in London echoes the work of Dickens - the name "Grizzlehurst" and his "Daily Report of Mayhem and Mischief" could have come straight out of one of his novels! The book has a touch of a Wilkie Collins feel about it too with its well constructed plot and delivery of revelations. This book could have tricked me into thinking that it had been written by a Victorian author.

Faye uses an extract from Bronte's book at the beginning of each chapter and these are particularly effective in heightening tension and exaggerating atmosphere. The quotes parallel the tale of Jane Steele and draw attention to the darker aspects of "Jane Eyre". However, it is in no way necessary to have read "Jane Eyre" or even be that familiar with it as this novel works equally successfully as a complete stand alone book.

I would highly recommend this book. For me, it was a perfect read. A great plot with unexpected twists and turns, highly original writing in the style of a classic novel with a hugely refreshing, beguiling and chilling protagonist.

Thanks so much to NetGalley for the opportunity to read this book for free in return for an honest and fair review.

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