Book review: The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey (HarperCollins, 2012)
To Gemma’s delight, the school goes bankrupt, and she takes a job as an au pair on the Orkney Islands. The remote Blackbird Hall belongs to Mr. Sinclair, a London businessman; his eight-year-old niece is Gemma’s charge. Even before their first meeting, Gemma is, like everyone on the island, intrigued by Mr. Sinclair. Rich (by Gemma’s standards), single, flying in from London when he pleases, Hugh Sinclair fills the house with life. An unlikely couple, the two are drawn to each other, but Gemma’s biggest trial is about to begin: a journey of passion and betrayal, redemption and discovery, that will lead her to a life of which she’s never dreamed.
Set in Scotland and Iceland in the 1950s and ’60s, The Flight of Gemma Hardy — a captivating homage to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre — is a sweeping saga that resurrects the timeless themes of the original but is destined to become a classic all its own.
As you can see from the description above, this is a re-telling of Jane Eyre, set in 1950s and 1960s Scotland and Orkney Islands. Gemma Hardy is a half-Scottish, half-Icelandic (!) orphan living with her aunt and cousins somewhere in Scotland in the late 1950s. Since her uncle died she’s being treated miserably, and eventually shipped off to an all girl’s boarding school on a working girl’s scholarship. She goes there with great hopes of being educated, but instead, she’s lower than low, a mere servant.
Years later, when the school is forced to close down, Gemma is hired as an au pair to an eight-year-old orphan girl on the Orkneys, whose uncle is a wealthy London business man. He eventually shows up, love ensues, there’s a big reveal of his Secret Past, and she runs away and starts a new life back in Scotland. And so on. (Hey, it’s based on Jane Eyre, what would you expect?)
Most of the time I don’t really enjoy reading about Jane’s Tragic Past™, but Gemma’s drew me in. In fact, when it was coming at an end, I thought “aww, I was enjoying that”. There were also lots of descriptions of nature, which I really liked. The landscape was always very evocative, and I could easily picture it. I also like the slight obsession with birds, because Jane herself liked to curl up with Bewick’s History of British Birds.
I’m not sure what the purpose of making Gemma half-Icelandic was, aside from giving her a place she wants to visit and look for previously unknown relatives and showing off the landscape. Still, it’s different, and Iceland is a Nordic country, so I can’t disapprove even if I wanted to, and I would actually rather like to visit Iceland some day.
The Mrs Fairfax character is a 27-year-old relative of the Mr Rochester character. Adèle is Rochester’s sister’s child, so he truly is her uncle. Then again, it also becomes a slight problem, because his Secret Past isn’t … well, when his Big Reveal came, it was such an anticlimax that I said, “what, that’s it?!” Having a mad wife in the attic is kind of a big deal to find out about on your wedding day. Sinclair’s reveal is nothing of the sort, and I was really surprised at Gemma for running away. For what reason? He didn’t even lie … much. A mere trifle, and she flees, head-over-heels.
I suppose that’s part of the problem. The young Gemma is a nice and very determined girl. The adult one is too meek and bland. How she deals with the child is great, but I don’t care as much about adult Gemma, and I found myself wondering how she and Sinclair fell in love, because they don’t seem to interact that much, yet all of a sudden, marriage. Not convinced.
So the first half of the book is absolutely brilliant, the second half has me scratching my head. Still, overall, I think it’s a very good adaptation and it was really enjoyable. Easy to read, quick, well-written and the Rivers bit was a nice and different touch. The time setting was refreshing – like modern day but with less gadgetry and fewer cars – and overall, I liked it. It just could have been a more convincing love story. A 41-year-old and an 18-year-old fall in love … why? Because they watch birds together? I don’t get it.
4 out of 5 calves.
The Flight of Gemma Hardy in hardcover, Kindle edition and large print paperback are available now in all major bookshops.
Many thanks to the friendly folks at HarperCollins for sending me a review copy of this book!