Monday, June 28, 2010

Erica’s Five Retellings That Don’t Involve Zombies or the Undead

Back in the day when I was just a young lass we didn’t take kindly to upstart whippersnappers inserting zombies or denizens of the underworld into our literary classics. Here are five books you’ll like if Pride and Prejudice and Zombies holds little or no appeal for you.

The Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (W.W. Norton, $13.95).

It’s no Jane Slayre, but why should it be? Where is it written that in order to re-imagine the great gothic masterpiece that is Jane Eyre we have to add the undead? I’ve got plenty of problems with Jane Eyre (you mean there’s a madwoman in the attic who burns Thornfield Hall to the ground leaving Rochester blind and minus one hand? you mean that even though Rochester is blind, minus one hand and has kept his first wife locked in the attic for years Jane still marries him?) but zombies aren’t the answer. Jean Rhys understands that. In this prequel of sorts, she crawls inside of the gothic trappings of the original novel and with prose that is lush, effective and evocative fleshes out the life of that madwoman in the attic from her childhood in the West Indies, through her marriage to Rochester, to her arrival in England where she is imprisoned in Thornfield Hall. It’s a fierce and beautiful examination of one woman’s life amid colonialism and the forces of a patriarchal society only too willing to label her as other and insane.

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin (Vintage, $13.95).

Mary Reilly is a servant in the household of one Doctor Henry Jekyll and I’m going to flat out tell you that I don’t envy her. The guy keeps totally weird hours. He’s supposedly brilliant but then he turns up at dawn all rumpled and bleary-eyed as if this learned man of science has spent the night tripping the light fantastic instead of holed up in his laboratory. Then there’s his new “assistant” Mr. Hyde, a feral creature with “cold eyes” and a face “charged with anger.” There is a darkness about these two men which both draws and repels Mary, requiring her to confront the demons of her own troubled childhood. Valerie Martin gives us the strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from Mary’s perspective and it becomes a deeply human exploration of Good and Evil, as well as a tale of those who slip through Evil’s fingers and live to tell. No Zombies need apply.

The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall (Mariner Books, $12.95).

I confess: I hate Scarlett O’Hara. It’s hard to admit because I love an epic. I love a feisty heroine. I love a sweeping family saga that spans generations, but the politics of Gone with the Wind have always made me queasy. Alice Randall had a similar love-hate relationship with the novel, which prompted her to write The Wind Done Gone. Presented as the diary of a mulatto slave woman named Cynara, Scarlett’s half-sister and contemporary, this slim novel takes place alongside the original in a world where Scarlett is referred to as Other, Rhett Butler as R., and Tara as simply Cotton Farm. These iconic characters through their naming have been reduced to truncated versions of themselves or even (gasp!) stereotypes, not unlike the slave characters in Gone with the Wind. Randall’s novel is more than a mere reversal of perspective however; it’s a thoughtful meditation on racial politics and a spare, lyrically told story to boot. Well, fiddle-dee-dee!

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (Penguin, $13.95).

Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Well, not Angela Carter and certainly none of the heroines she’s created in her collection of re-imagined fairy tales. With a keen eye for the symbolism already present in the classic Brothers Grimm oeuvre, Carter transforms familiar stories into lush, sensual tales that reexamine women’s roles and sexual agency in a way that is both bold and intelligent. Gone are the typical damsels in distress on the lookout for Prince Charming. Instead, Carter’s heroines are more likely to laugh in the face of the wolf despite those huge, lupine eyes, and sharp, pointy teeth. They carry knives beneath their red riding hoods and they aren’t afraid to use them.

Fool by Christopher Moore (Harper Collins, $26.99).

Never one to back down from a challenge, Christopher Moore goes balls out and pretty much has his way with King Lear. Fool is witty, vulgar, sublime and profane, and I wholeheartedly applaud him for sticking it to the Bard. People tend to treat Shakespeare with kid gloves and I’m not sure why. I mean, he’s pretty venerable. The man’s survived over 400 years in print, I think he can stand up to a little ruddy manhandling from an American author with undaunted pluck. Told from the point of view of Pocket, Lear’s clever fool, this novel is a rollicking romp in five acts through the treacherous minefield of Lear family relationships. It’s up to Pocket to help long-suffering Cordelia regain her father’s esteem, and he’ll use every joke, pun and ditty in his arsenal to achieve that end.

June 2010, Erica David

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