When I heard Margot Livesey had written a retelling of “Jane Eyre” — set in the mid-20th century in Scotland and Iceland — I was forced to give up a long-standing bias. For many years, I have steadfastly refused to read “Jane Eyre,” holding (unfairly, of course) the work of Charlotte Bronte’s sister Emily against her.
But I loved Livesey’s last novel, “The House on Fortune Street,” and was eager to read “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” (Harper, 447 pages, $26.99). So, now I have read both “Jane Eyre” and “The Flight of Gemma Hardy,” and I owe Livesey a double debt of gratitude.
I loved both books, and am mightily impressed by Livesey’s ability to adhere to the central plot points of “Jane Eyre” while still rendering her own story moving and suspenseful. Admittedly, reading the two books over a short period time meant that I could predict certain turns of events (and also meant that in the early going of “Flight,” I had to get used to a more modern set of technologies and concerns), but Gemma doesn’t just live Jane’s life by rote. Rather, Livesey breathes life into her protagonist so that she can stride across her story as an individual.
In keeping with the concept of flight found in the book’s title, Gemma’s love of birds is a recurring theme in Livesey’s book. Whether serving as a metaphor for Gemma’s desires, a subject to debate with a vacuous rival or as a tenuous link to friendship with a difficult schoolmate, birds are important to Livesey’s story. These avian motifs are handled with a light touch, and soon the reader delights in the book’s various birds nearly as much as Gemma does.
While “The Flight of Gemma Hardy” owes much to “Jane Eyre,” one need not follow my example in order to enjoy Livesey’s novel. It stands alone even as it pays homage to its classic predecessor.