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The Flight of Gemma Hardy


The Flight of Gemma Hardy

At one point in Margot Livesey's evocative new novel, THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY, one character remarks, "This isn't the nineteenth century." Characters, not to mention readers, can't really be blamed for confusion. Although Livesey's latest is set firmly in the middle of the 20th century, the very occasional references to pop culture, fashion and airplane travel can seem jarring up against a setting that abounds with boarding schools, manor houses, orphans, governesses and ghosts.

"If readers go into this novel expecting to meet Jane Eyre, they'll likely be disappointed. But if they encounter Gemma Hardy on her own terms, they'll discover a novel full of merits of its own."

It's no wonder that these elements fill the pages since --- at least on a very broad level --- THE FLIGHT OF GEMMA HARDY is a retelling of Charlotte Brontë's JANE EYRE. As Livesey comments in an author's note, however, this story is as much inspired by her own biography as it is by Brontë's novel, so readers looking for a straightforward retelling would be better served elsewhere. There are no madwomen in the attic or blinding fires, and although drama abounds, the book’s stakes never verge toward the Gothic in quite the way JANE EYRE might feel if it were published in 2012. If readers go into this novel expecting to meet Jane Eyre, they'll likely be disappointed. But if they encounter Gemma Hardy on her own terms, they'll discover a novel full of merits of its own.

The broad outlines of the story will be familiar to many. Gemma Hardy, raised in an Iceland she doesn't remember and orphaned at a young age, is sent to live with her aunt and uncle in a remote part of Scotland. When the book opens, nine-year-old Gemma's beloved uncle has recently died, and her aunt (who hates the child for reasons that become apparent only much later) is determined to get rid of her. An answer presents itself in the form of the Claypoole School, where Gemma is soon accepted as a working pupil. Gemma, who loves schoolwork, is at first eager to be heading to boarding school far from the adoptive family that detests her. But when she discovers that working pupils are treated no better than the most despised servants, her fantasies of a blissful school career vanish.

Over time, though (and with the help of a cherished but short-lived friendship), Gemma excels at Claypoole, scoring well enough on exams to make university a possibility. But before she can get there, a turn of events leads her to a new assignment --- as tutor and companion for a poorly behaved child named Nell, in a grand house located in the harsh and unforgiving landscape of the Orkney Islands. There Gemma thrives, surrounded by birds and her beloved sea. Even when she finds love, she is reluctant to settle into her perch there, instead taking flight once again, seeking any vestige of the family she hardly remembers.

Margot Livesey infuses every sentence of her novel not only with Gemma's quite compelling personality, but also with the details of the world she inhabits. As the title suggests, the book is filled with the imagery of birds, but they serve more than a thematic purpose. Gemma's affection for birds reveals her attention to detail and her desire to understand the relationships of things. These characteristics might also apply to Livesey herself, as her sharply observed, firmly grounded narrative transforms a classic tale into a story --- and a place --- all its own.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 26, 2012

The Flight of Gemma Hardy
by Margot Livesey

  • Publication Date: January 24, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0062064223
  • ISBN-13: 9780062064226