11th January 2016


I finished this book earlier today, and I haven’t decided yet what I will read next, nor am I reaching for recommendations or turning to the novels still unread.  I am still in the place called Winter, which apparently is an actual place, a settlement in Canada, the site of most of the book, and the wide bleak isolation of the protagonist, Harry Cane, after he realises that he is homosexual. I am in a melancholic wintry space after reading about the losses and torments in this book.  It is a beautifully crafted and evocative novel, rich with history and a powerful sense of place and time.

At the start of the book, Harry is in an asylum in Canada; we are not sure why he is there. Soon we learn that he started his life in Edwardian England. He is close to his more extrovert brother Jack; the two of them marry sisters George and Winnie, and his marriage ends – I am not going to spoil it for you, reader. All I will say is that Harry emigrates to Canada to work the land and set up a new home. The villain of the piece is the vicious and manipulative Troels Munck; he is one of many characters who portray a range of dimensions of masculinity and sexual identity.

I was really moved by this book, and also full of admiration for its craft: the close-ups and the long shots are equally effective.

Have you read it? please let me know what you think.


26 April 2015

This novel, published in 2012 and set in Scotland and Iceland, is an evocative and powerful homage to Jane Eyre, but also so much more than that. The way in which it reflects the themes of the original and highlights their universality makes me think about the nature of creativity. Creativity is a broad term which is difficult to define, but there seems to be some common assumptions about it. One of these is that in order for something to be creative, it has to be novel, or original. Is originality something entirely new?

I would like to ask a different question: Can a contemporary version of an original masterpiece add to our appreciation of the original, as well as to inspire and excite us? In the case of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I think the answer is yes. The protagonist, like Jane Eyre, is resilient in a world in which she lacks power; reading about her experiences in her aunt’s home and at school has enhanced my empathy for the young Jane Eyre, and made me realise just how much she suffered.

The themes of poverty and compassion in Jane Eyre are most skilfully developed in Livesey’s novel. Gemma’s experience of being robbed (no spoilers!) at a crucial time in her life is really painful to read about, but she responds with resourcefulness and some degree of good fortune from some compassionate characters, who are at the same time real human beings, and not saints.  Gemma develops her own compassion through her au pair role with two beautifully depicted children, Nell and Robin. Like Gemma, they have been abandoned and neglected. Nell is fierce and wilful, a little like Gemma. Robin, who is much younger, hides under the table when he feels threatened, in counterpoint to Gemma’s experience of being locked up in small dark places as a child.

The location of part of the story on the Orkney Islands opens up the theme of isolation in Jane Eyre. Indeed, The Flight of Gemma Hardy is a poignant study of isolation and of remote places,, both those in our physical world and those emotions which are sometimes too difficult to acknowledge.

I read with interest in an addendum to the novel the author’s comment that “Once I embarked on The Flight of Gemma Hardy, I never consulted Jane Eyre; indeed I hid my copy so well that I had to go out and buy another once the book was done.” (About the book, p.10)

I speculate that  Jane Eyre was still there for Livesey, at the core of her novel, from which she spiralled to create the powerful and resonant story of Gemma Hardy.  I loved revisiting Jane Eyre through the contemporary novel; I loved inhabiting Gemma Hardy’s inner and outer worlds. In fact, so reluctant am I to leave them, that I am not going to read another book for a while. No doubt more reflections and connections will arise.

Do read the novel and share your own response!



2nd January 2015

I recently read Morag Joss’s novel Across the Bridge (Alma Books, 2011). I was attracted to the book because of its setting in the Highlands, although there was little focus on the beauty and majesty of this part of the world. Nevertheless, the novel drew me in and intrigued me, not necessarily because of the plot but because of the characterisation. Six people’s lives become connected through the incident of a bridge collapsing. Three of these are a family of illegal immigrants; the others are a pregnant woman, her husband and Ron, recently released from prison after he inadvertently caused. So in a way it’s a redemption novel.

What I was particularly drawn to in the novel is how Joss makes it possible to empathise with all of her main characters, to inhabit their worlds: physical, emotional, interconnected and individual. It’s a few weeks since I read the book, but I still feel the bleakness of cabin where the young couple and their baby live, the young women’s grief, the aftermath of the collapse of the bridge.

I agree with John Connolly, in The Book of Lost Things (Hodder and Stoughton, 2006) that “the act of reading imbues the reader with a sensitivity toward the outside world that people who don’t read can sometimes lack. I know it seems like a contradiction in terms; after all reading is such a solitary, internalizing act that it appears to represent a disengagement from day-to-day life. But reading, and particularly the reading of fiction, encourages us to view the world in new and challenging ways…It allows us to inhabit the consciousness of another which is a precursor to empathy, and empathy is, for me, one of the marks of a decent human being.”

Which books would you see as particularly effective at evoking empathy and sensitivity?

And how do they do this?



  1. I totally agree with the John Connolly comment which you quoted above. I had never really thought about it in those terms, but it struck me as one of those things which one has always known, but failed to form into words.
    I remember the first time I read ‘The Book Thief’ I was initially fairly unsettled that the narrator of the story was ‘Death’. Yet as the story continued I began to enjoy his musings and certainly empathised a great deal with his point of view. One could say that after a while I certainly warmed to ‘Death’.
    An odd turnaround indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your point about warming to what seems to be an unsympathetic character makes me think about my experience of reading Gone Girl. This book, which was such a sensation, left me with a profound sense of unease. It seemed as if the author was eliciting my empathy, and then showing me how naive and gullible I was to believe the story created by each of the narrators. I felt manipulated and cheated. Perhaps it was because the book did little to foster empathy, but played with readers’ tendency to empathise with the story and protagonists in a novel.


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