Ten-year-old Gemma is an orphan and lives with her cruel aunt and merciless cousins in haunting Scotland in the 1960s. Tortured daily, Gemma is eventually sent to a boarding school where she works to maintain her status as a student, and is further bullied by working-students.
She eventually finds a friend at Claypoole school, but loses her just as quickly when the young girl dies of asthma and Gemma is alone and friendless once again.
Now grown up, Gemma tries to find herself in the world and earn her keep as she takes a position as a nanny to a difficult girl in the isolated islands of the Orkneys.
It’s there that she meets Mr. Sinclair, who is the uncle of young Nell and is more than double the age of Gemma. He is also the man she falls in love with as Gemma journeys into a world of passion and betrayal, lies and secrets.
I loved the first part of the book. Livesey created a really great, haunting environment in the first part of the novel, the parts when Gemma lives with her aunt and when she goes away to boarding school. When Gemma goes to school at Claypoole, you really feel for her as the other working girls were bullies and Gemma quickly gets caught up in the school politics, while trying to get an education, which some of her teachers feel like she isn’t entitled to.
The setting in this novel is beautifully described, throughout the story. The haunting atmosphere around Claypoole school, the quiet serenity of Mr. Sinclair’s house, and then the majestic mountains and landscape of Iceland. Gemma’s Icelandic roots also added a different and unique flavour to the story, since Gemma’s journey of self-discovery includes tracking her parents’ down and finding out what happened to them.
The book isn’t a carbon copy of Jane Eyre, so that there were some little retelling and reinterpretations that brought welcome surprises. But the majority of the plot is borrowed from the classic, so that I pretty much knew exactly what was going to happen when, although Livesay reinterprets certain key plot points and freshens them up.
Despite the evocative writing, and the haunting landscapes, I still had a hard time connected to Gemma and her story. In moments of intense passion or confusion or sadness, moments that anyone would sort of melt under, Gemma was stoic and calm. She was a complete statue at times, and I couldn’t relate to her, couldn’t understand her thought-process. She was constantly described as being full of passion by various other characters, yet I never saw this passion anywhere.
Mr. Sinclair was a similar case. He was so blank and boring that I never felt anything for him as the object of Gemma’s affections, and their scenes were so passionless and flat. His big, juicy secret doesn’t end up involving a hidden wife in the attic (darn it!), but regardless of that, it’s not that juicy or scandalous and Gemma’s immediate flight from the islands seems a bit dramatic.
Overall, this is a great retelling of a great classic; it has elements of uniqueness and a different flavour. But not being able to relate or connect to Gemma, or Mr. Sinclair, prevented me from loving this book.
So for that: 3/5.
Thanks for reading,