Published by Penguin on March 22nd 2016
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
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“Reader, I murdered him.” A sensitive orphan, Jane Steele suffers first at the hands of her spiteful aunt and predatory cousin, then at a grim school where she fights for her very life until escaping to London, leaving the corpses of her tormentors behind her. After years of hiding from the law while penning macabre “last confessions” of the recently hanged, Jane thrills at discovering an advertisement. Her aunt has died and her childhood home has a new master: Mr. Charles Thornfield, who seeks a governess. Burning to know whether she is in fact the rightful heir, Jane takes the position incognito, and learns that Highgate House is full of marvelously strange new residents—the fascinating but caustic Mr. Thornfield, an army doctor returned from the Sikh Wars, and the gracious Sikh butler Mr. Sardar Singh, whose history with Mr. Thornfield appears far deeper and darker than they pretend. As Jane catches ominous glimpses of the pair’s violent history and falls in love with the gruffly tragic Mr. Thornfield, she faces a terrible dilemma: can she possess him—body, soul, and secrets—without revealing her own murderous past?
The first 1/3-1/2 of this book was really great.
Jane Steele is being called a retelling of Jane Eyre, but it isn’t. The narrator presents the story as an autobiography and claims to have read Bronte’s most famous novel and “the work inspires me to imitative acts”. And Jane Steele’s life does indeed resemble that of Jane Eyre.
But with a huge twist – a lot more blood, murder and vengeance.
Regardless of whether you like Jane Eyre or not (and I do), it’s hard to not be pulled in by Jane Steele’s narrative voice. Her mother dies, leaving her orphaned and at the mercy of her constantly-disapproving aunt, who later sends her to a strict, miserable boarding school. But that’s not before she commits her first murder.
Steele is fuelled by fire and vengeance. She is not afraid to get her hands dirty. And even though she seems increasingly nuts and lacking in human empathy, the author somehow manages to convince the reader that her crimes were warranted. From attempted rapists to sanctimonious religious hypocrites, Steele is a serial killer with strong – and often understandable – motivations.
Her time at boarding school is my favourite part of the story because that place is horrid. Nothing drags you into a story like a nice serving of despair and unfairness to really piss you off. And the boarding school is full of it. As well as the angst, there’s also some great (but complex and not always loyal) female friendships. The section ends with blood and drama, and it was sad to see the novel never quite reach that level again.
Truth be told, once Jane Steele becomes a governess for Mr Thornfield, the story kind of loses its momentum. Every bit of excitement and bloodthirsty drama is gradually drained away as the romance is introduced (though gradually; no instalove in sight) and Jane finds a place for herself in Thornfield’s life.
The pacing slowed and it became far less compelling. A disappointing and anticlimactic, if not unexpected, end to a novel that started so well.