The Flight of Gemma Hardy

Margot Livesey

I’m not sure why exactly I rescued this book from a free pile, but I’d guess it was due to its Jane Eyre roots and my appreciation of Wide Sargasso Sea. I was really convinced I had never read Jane Eyre, but according to what I wrote about Jean Rhys’s book, I did, at some point. Apparently my memories of it are even hazier now, to the point of obscurity.

Set in mid-20th-century Scotland, and, as noted, based on the storyline of Charlotte Brontë’s novel, The Flight of Gemma Harding is entertaining enough. I got through it in a week, despite its length nearing in on 500 pages. But the story is very tidy, and the pace rumbles on a bit too fast. It seems like you want a story about the inconceivable misfortunes of others to linger on that — a little more sadistically, perhaps? Margot Livesey wrote this book partially inspired by her own upbringing and the elements of Jane Eyre that resounded with her when she read it as an adolescent, and you can sense where this story aligns with both hers and Brontë. Unfortunately, things get shifty where the narrative is isolated on its own ground.

A big risk of following another story as a template is that the pieces can feel too conveniently slotted together since they aren’t flowing organically and can’t stray too far from that template. Obviously not everything will be the same, otherwise we’d just read Jane Eyre again and maybe remember it more clearly this time; but chipping away at a story to create a modern version is bound to elicit disappointments. Here it feels like the best parts wound up on the floor.