As soon as I heard about this book, I knew I had to read it – I’ve always had a passion for Wuthering Heights, and this retelling, set in 1980s Yorkshire and published in the year of the 200th anniversary of Emily Brontë’s birth, intrigued me for many reasons. The Heights by Juliet Bell was published for kindle yesterday, 3rd January, by HQ Digital – my thanks to the publishers and netgalley for my reading copy. Juliet Bell (the name might make Brontë fans smile…!) is a collaboration between two authors, Alison May (always one of my favourites, but this is a very different book from her usual) and Janet Gover (whose books I still haven’t read, but have several on my kindle awaiting their moment). A triumph, or a moment of madness?
Here’s the book description:
The searchers took several hours to find the body, even though they knew roughly where to look. The whole hillside had collapsed, and there was water running off the moors and over the slick black rubble. The boy, they knew, was beyond their help. This was a recovery, not a rescue.
A grim discovery brings DCI Lockwood to Gimmerton’s Heights Estate – a bleak patch of Yorkshire he thought he’d left behind for good. There, he must do the unthinkable, and ask questions about the notorious Earnshaw family.
Decades may have passed since Maggie closed the pits and the Earnshaws ran riot – but old wounds remain raw. And, against his better judgement, DCI Lockwood is soon drawn into a story.
A story of an untameable boy, terrible rage, and two families ripped apart. A story of passion, obsession, and dark acts of revenge. And of beautiful Cathy Earnshaw – who now lies buried under cold white marble in the shadow of the moors.
So, the story of Wuthering Heights set against a 1980s background – the miners’ strike and the closure of the pits, the Heights a run down housing estate, young Linton a graphic designer, a modern twist to whatever Heathcliff got up to during his disappearance – with a 2008 investigation into what really happened. Yes, it works – I did enjoy it, and to do so you really don’t need to be a fan or to be familiar with the original story.
But if you do know it well, you’ll find the same broad story outline, but with some very clever little twists – I really liked what they did with Ellen Dean, an unreliable narrator for quite different reasons, and some of the little touches like the lock of hair, the Lintons’ dog and the fate of Isabella. I couldn’t entirely forgive giving Heathcliff a surname – but then I can be a bit of a purist. But the legacy of mental and physical cruelty is still here, the class and gender divide (the former perhaps more translatable to the 80s setting than the latter), the magnificence of the moors, and the starkly gothic and heart-rending story of vengeance and obsession. The additions and context worked well too – the investigator’s background and his preoccupation with the family. For the most part, the 80s setting was well drawn, although I could perhaps have done without some of the contemporary touches like mentions of Madonna and TV programmes which jarred a little.
Perhaps it’s wrong to review this one purely as a retelling of the original story. Had I come to this book with no knowledge of the original, I think I actually might have enjoyed it anyway (perhaps more?), as a powerful story with a story of doomed obsessive love at its centre. None of the characters are particularly likeable, but are well drawn, and the passion is most definitely there – and perhaps, as a first time reader, it might have been easier to engage with Lockwood’s murder investigation rather than looking for the echoes of the original. The story’s latter stages are immensely sad – and very well done. And the writing? The story is well told, and immensely readable – maybe a little flat in places, perhaps the product of its setting, and sometimes a little matter-of-fact when I was looking for the heaving passion of the original. Or maybe that passion was always just the product of my own imagination?
So I think I’m saying that the jury’s out. It’s a retelling of a magnificent story that I think was always going to work best in its Victorian setting, where its themes really do belong. But do try this one – it’s brave and a very different interpretation, and you might just enjoy it.
About the author
Juliet Bell is the collaborative pen name of authors Janet Gover and Alison May.
Juliet was born at a writers’ conference, with a chance remark about heroes who are far from heroic and shares Alison and Janet’s preoccupation with misunderstood classic fiction, and stories that explore the darker side of relationships.
Alison also writes commercial women’s fiction and romantic comedies and can be found at www.alison-may.co.uk.
Janet writes contemporary romantic adventures mostly set in outback Australia and can be found at www.janetgover.com.