Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy: A Novel by Margot Livesey

Anyone who writes a book or makes a movie that reimagines a classic has some serious cajones, as the slightest stumble brings out the critics like cockroaches in the dark. The fact that I saw very few complaints in the reviews of The Flight of Gemma Hardy indicated to me that author Margot Livesey (pictured) must have done a pretty good job of reimagining Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I, on the other hand, couldn’t tell you whether she did or not because about the only thing I remember about Jane Eyre, which I read many years ago, is that Jane was a stoic fortress in a life-long storm of misfortune, as is Gemma Hardy.

Set in Iceland, Scotland, and the Orkney Islands off the northern-most tip of Scotland during 1950-60’s, Gemma’s story begins when she is orphaned in Iceland at the age of 3. She becomes the ward of her kindly, pastor uncle in Scotland, who unfortunately soon dies, leaving Gemma in the hands of the predictably wicked stepmother and progeny. Gemma gets tossed into a boarding school that uses indigent students as slaves, but she trudges bravely though that and a seemingly endless series of disasters involving the not uncommon trials of life (i.e., love, poverty, work, betrayal) which would be depressing if it weren’t for two things. CLICK ON READ MORE BELOW...

First, severed from the identity that comes with home, family and history, Gemma aches for them to the point that the aching becomes her identity and her compass. Gemma’s life never feels hopeless because you know that she has her eye on the prize, and that keeps her and us on course, comfortable and optimistic.

The other thing is Margot Livesey, who believes that authors have an obligation to “take care of the reader,” and gal-howdy does she, fluffing our pillows with phrases like:

“I remembered how Mr. Sinclair had talked to me when the bee stung my hand, and how later he had asked my views about God, as if my answer mattered. In those moments I had felt seen by him, and I wanted…. to go on being seen."

“…love was about the people who loved you.” 

“Once again I glimpsed the way in which departure ripped the veil from ordinary life, revealing things that were normally kept secret.”

“Running, I soon realized, was the best way to stay ahead of fear,”

Every character in this book is pretty screwed up flawed, which I loved because it didn’t feel patronizing. But thanks to Livesey, even Gemma’s mistakes felt part of a grand design to get her to where she needed to be (sorry, no spoiler). And in the end, that felt good.  When I thanked Very Smart Gal Judy Knotts, who loaned me this book, I told her The Flight of Gemma Hardy felt like a long soak in a warm tub!

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