On my new list of Top Five Things I Wouldn’t Want to Hear When Moving into a New Household:
“Your youth is to your advantage. You’re moldable and not at all like . . . some people.”
I was so excited to read Jane Nickerson’s Strands of Bronze and Gold. After all, it’s a reimagining of Bluebeard! Set in 1855, just a few years before the Civil War, in a centuries-old English abbey that the richer-than-rich, handsome, captivating Monsieur Bernard de Cressac moved to Mississippi 25 years ago stone by stone! Starring 17-year-old Sophia Petheram, a heroine who—as a newly-orphaned and penniless Bostonian—is completely out of her element: culturally, socially and experientially. Does that not sound like the awesomest? And the cover! So pretty!
I was so disappointed.
It’s written as a gothic, and technically, it has many of the major elements of a gothic: The characters are gothic archetypes; it’s set in a place that is sumptuously furnished, but crumbling and decayed, both literally and metaphorically; there are ghostly apparitions and violent storms; mysteries, tragedies and unscrupulous behavior; and there is no question that Sophia is in very real danger. Nickerson describes everything vividly, with rich detail, from the very personal (Sophia’s clothing, her reaction to music, her embroidery) to every aspect of the environment, manmade and natural.
Historical fiction fans are likely to be bothered that Sophia’s language and diction—as well as the rest of the dialogue spoken by the white characters—is anachronistic, in that it sounds more 2013 than 1855: I smashed a mosquito against my neck and my own blood spurted out. Because of that modern feel, the dialect spoken by the black characters—He been beat before. He tougher’n he looks.—is somewhat jarring. Sophia also has a tendency to tell us how she feels, rather than letting us feel it through her...which is what ultimately leads me to what this book is missing.
What’s missing—and this is kind of key when it comes to gothics—are thrills, chills or any real excitement. That isn’t because it’s a story with a known ending—there are, after all, any number of fairy tale re-tellings that are entirely compelling despite their familiar storylines*. No, the problem is that, despite featuring the requisite physical trappings of the gothic, Strands of Bronze and Gold doesn’t have an emotional core. I didn’t care about Sophia, I didn’t identify with her, I didn’t feel what she was supposedly feeling. Without any sort of emotional connection, there’s no suspense. With no suspense, there’s no fear, no real sense of horror and nothing to really spur the reader to turn the pages. In all honesty, I had to force myself to finish it despite being, well, bored: bored with multiple murders, a whipping, an attempted rape, revenge, a garden filled with erotic statuary and a forest mined with bear traps. EVEN THE MURDER OF A CAT LEFT ME COLD.
Nutshell: Super idea, weak execution.
I’m planning on reading Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber this weekend—one of the stories in that collection is based on Bluebeard, and I’m hoping to have better luck with that—if you have any recommendations for me, I’m all ears.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably mooning over Timothy Olyphant’s portrayal of Raylan Givens in Justified. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.