There were moments earlier this month when I wondered if we were going to ever make it to our March book discussion after the bad weather delayed your book deliveries, so I’m really happy we’re finally here to discuss Jane Steele.
I know a lot of you waited two weeks before your book arrived and I really am sorry for that – the so-called Beast from the East and then Storm Emma really threw a spanner in the works. At least it was worth the wait. (right?)
This book was actually one of the first titles I knew I wanted to send with the book subscription. It’s exactly the kind of book I’m always looking for; one that’s smart and fun and interesting but was never going to get the kind of attention that would propel it to the bestseller charts.
Some of that comes down to snobbery – so often critics and booksellers reserve their praise for really highbrow literary fiction, that anything that doesn’t fall into that category ends up overlooked, forgotten or ignored.
Part of what I’m here to encourage you to do with this book club is branch out and enjoy all different types of reading. We all need variety – if we get stuck in a rut reading only one genre or only one type of book we miss out on all the wonderful things happening elsewhere.
In my opinion you don’t need help finding what’s on the bestseller lists – Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a brilliant book, but also one that’s in just about every window at every bookstore around the country. It’s getting plenty of attention. I’m here to bring some balance and offer attention to the Jane Steeles of the world instead.
So we’ve established Jane Steele is a book close to my heart. Now let’s get into what it’s all about.
Strictly speaking this isn’t a retelling of Jane Eyre – it’s a pastiche. What I mean by that is that this book imitates the style of Jane Eyre and is also a (loving) parody of it. By changing the story the author also draws attention to what’s ridiculous about it, and actually there is a lot that’s ridiculous about Jane Eyre.
Charles Thornfield’s big skeleton in the closet is pretty much literally a skeleton in the closet – he’s running a morgue from his basement.
In contrast, Rochester’s big dark secret is that he’s hiding his mad wife in the attic in solitary confinement and attempting to consign her to history by marrying his governess instead. (Which, I think we can all agree, is way worse)
Jane Eyre is so often depicted as a romantic story, and Rochester is right up there with Mr Darcy in terms of brooding, highly fanciable leading men.
But a lot of his actions are pretty inexcusable, and it wasn’t until I was thinking about Charles Thornfield in comparison that I realised just how problematic he can be. (but that’s a conversation for another day)
The two heroines are alike in some ways – both resourceful – but also very different.
Unlike Jane Eyre, who is rigidly bound by the rules of society, Jane Steele lives on the fringes of society and makes her own rules.
This book also plays with all the same themes present in Jane Eyre – both Janes grapple with identity, guilt and goodness. Both are called wicked, both eventually come to realise why they aren’t.
But of course the original Jane Eyre isn’t a murderer, and Jane Steele is – five times over. I’m not sure I ever truly had an opinion on whether or not I enjoyed reading about murder before, but in this book I loved it.
One of my favourite scenes is when Jane kills her headmaster Vesalius Munt. She tells us that he had been ‘felled by a strangely skillful blow, as if i had studied the act, when in fact I had simply decided he should stop being alive.’
The way she matter-of-factly describes how he came to be dead was one of the things I liked best about this character and what made her a charming narrator I could go the distance with.
Jane Steele certainly borrows elements of mystery and thriller, but it’s not really accurate to call it a thriller as such.
Even in its most climactic moments it didn’t really feel like all that much was at stake – as a reader I was always pretty confident that everything would work out in the end, even if I wasn’t sure how it would work out. It’s written to entertain us rather than make us truly nervous.
This is a clear decision on the part of the author and one I mostly agreed with – what it sacrifices in nail-biting tension it makes up for with energy, wit and plot.
But looking back on the story, there is a crucial moment where we need more tension and we don’t really get it – and that was when Jane confronts Garima Kaur.
The mystery of the missing jewels was becoming more fraught – we knew we’re building up to something. And that something is a confession.
In the space of a few pages Garima Kaur moves from being a barely noticeable secondary character to being the person that connects every single mystery in the book.
The reason we never truly know her better makes perfect sense – the reader can’t have the opportunity to figure it out too soon – but it also meant that in this case when it does all come together it all felt a little flat.
In the space of a short conversation the mystery is solved. Did Jane even solve it? Not really. She was just around to hear the confession.
Kaur’s revelations should be like a punch to the gut. She has been overlooked, ignored and betrayed by the people who she believed should love her.
Kaur’s hurts are real, but they don’t have much emotional impact for us as readers because we barely know her.
Through Jane we’re told to consider Kaur’s point of view, but never really have the chance to feel it.
That’s not to say the confrontation isn’t pacey – the scene with Jane and Garima leads to Sardar losing his hand and Sahjara being kidnapped. The only piece that was missing here was heart.
We don’t know Garima well enough to feel empathy for her, and without it, when she falls from the horse and dies it almost didn’t matter.
She was a shadow, and then a crucial character, then a shadow again. As a plot device, Garima is very important, but as a character, she’s poorly rendered.
While I’m pointing out things that didn’t work for me, the other one I’ll highlight is the dialogue.
That the author was American, and not British, felt really obvious to me on more than one occasion. Some of the turns of phrase just weren’t quite right.
For the most part, it was something I noticed and then forgot. But once or twice – usually when Charles Thornfield was talking – the language felt so off that it took me right out of the story and really didn’t do justice to a book that for the most part I felt was very strong.
Dialogue aside however, once I got into this book – and it didn’t take long – I didn’t want to put it down. 400 pages felt like half that length and I flew through it in just a couple of days. I hope you had a similar experience.
Now, tell me: what did you think of Jane Steele? Did you like the book, and the character it’s named after? And what about Charles Thornfield? Smouldering hero or uptight glove-wearing weirdo?