Sunday Burgs book review
Reviewed by Allison Long of Newport.
At first glance, “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” is merely a modern re-imagining of Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre.” The orphaned girl, who, at the death of her uncle, endures the disdain and bullying of her aunt and cousins before being sent away to school, is a familiar character.
But Gemma Hardy is not Jane Eyre. Gemma Hardy is modernized. Even their names set them apart. Gemma is more exotic, her surname stronger than the feathery Eyre that sounds like “air.” She, like Jane, is a girl with limited prospects, though the world she lives in is more modern. Livesey adapts the story to the late 50s and early 60s seamlessly; at no point does the story feel far-fetched.
From the outset, we are instantly on the side of our heroine. At times, the misfortunes seem to purposefully steer the reader towards sympathy. But before this becomes overwhelming, Livesey gives Gemma Hardy a friend, and the reader hope. Miriam helps Gemma survive boarding school. Though circumstances take her away, she leaves her young friend with advice that Gemma calls on during trying periods. Miriam urges Gemma to take Miss Seftain’s Latin class. By taking Latin, Gemma finds a mentor in Miss Seftain, prompting the young heroine to strive for a place at university. Unfortunate circumstances prevent Gemma from taking her exams, and she takes employment with the Sinclairs.
In the novel, the presence of World War II is still keenly felt in Scotland, and the war plays a shadowy influence for our main characters. The boarding school scenes assist in the reader’s time travel, more suited to the 1900s than the stereotyped ‘free’ 60s. As an adaptation, the time period is to the novel’s advantage. The world is shifting and this allows the story to shift with it.
Livesey gives each character the gift of humanity. As Gemma explains to Mr. Sinclair, her uncle “ thought everyone had to struggle between the good and bad parts of himself.” So we are left to wonder why Seamus is angry, Gemma’s family so disdainful and Ross so malicious. Even the most likeable characters are capable of mistakes. Where we might have found Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester cold and secluded, Mr. Sinclair is less sinister. Instead of a hidden wife, Mr. Sinclair’s problems are less gothic, though still haunting.
As the title, and a bench at the train station reading, “Fly away, “ suggest, “Gemma Hardy” is about flight, but it is also overwhelmingly about roots. Gemma’s search for her place and for a family very much drives the narrative. Without knowing more about her family, Gemma cannot fully commit to Mr. Sinclair, or anyone. After a disastrous wedding attempt, she sets off on a journey of discovery and realizes that though alone, Gemma has never been on her own in her entire life.
A quick read, even at 443 pages, Livesey manages to address both sweeping issues and mundane details. Alison Sinclair’s drug use and absent parenting sets the novel firmly in its time period. Hannah and Pauline’s relationship also illustrates the changes taking place in the world. Mrs. MacGellvary’s daughter runs off and leaves her young son to the care of his grandparents. These details give context to the era and provide a relief from the constant turmoil of Gemma’s situation. At times, the novel can be too dramatic, but the attention that Livesey gives to secondary characters balances the story.
Gemma is a character destined for rescuing. Throughout the story, she narrowly avoids one awful fate after another. Gemma Hardy learns never to look back, but it isn’t long before she realizes that to move forward, she must go back to the beginning. Fortunately, readers are welcome on the journey.
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