Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Coldwater" and Charlotte Brontë's 200th Birthday

Earlier this year, I read an unusual novel, Coldwater, which re-imagined the Brontë sisters' lives in a different context -- one more sign of the hold they still have on the imaginations of modern-day bookish women. Posting my review of Coldwater today in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Brontë's birth (April 21, 1816).

 ColdwaterColdwater by Mardi McConnochie
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with a premise quite like that of Coldwater, a book that takes real-life historical figures and reimagines them in a different setting. (I know there’s such a thing as “alternate-universe fan fiction,” which is basically what this is, but I’ve never seen that done in a serious literary novel.) The intriguing idea behind Mardi McConnochie’s book is: what if Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, daughters of a Yorkshire clergyman in the mid-1800s, were instead Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Wolf, daughters of the governor of a penal colony on a remote Australian island in the mid-1800s?

McConnochie’s Wolf sisters are even more isolated and alone than the Brontë sisters, who at least got to study in Brussels. Their widowed father derives his sense of self-worth from the strict control he keeps over his family and the prisoners in his charge. But when Emily (of course) falls in love with a sexy Irish prisoner (of course), the girls begin to taste freedom and the father starts to lose control.

Coldwater is told from the perspectives of all three sisters and their father, alternately. Charlotte serves as the main narrator: she is practical and straightforward, but has a tendency to believe she’s the only person on the island with any common sense. (In her self-righteousness, she is more like her father than she realizes.) Emily’s sections are written in breathless prose that sometimes recalls Emily Dickinson more than Emily Brontë: “Yet it is impossible that we could have known each other—except in a Dream—Yet his Visage is imprinted on my Soul—” Anne’s story is told in third-person, perhaps because she is the least famous of the three Brontë sisters and therefore feels the most “distant.” At first Anne just seems like a confidante for Emily, but in the second half of Coldwater she comes into her own, to satisfying effect.

It’s impossible to read Coldwater without comparing it to the Brontës' novels, which doesn’t always work to its advantage; it is shorter and less richly textured than Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. Maybe that’s understandable, because the Brontës wrote about things that were rooted in their own experiences of nineteenth-century Northern England, while McConnochie is writing about a time and place not her own. She's able to imagine and describe her characters’ emotional states quite well, but is less convincing when describing events. The climax of Coldwater is very busy (there’s a prison riot and a few competing escape attempts) but I didn’t quite buy it; it didn’t feel vivid enough.

I often find it hard to enjoy movie adaptations of my favorite novels (even if they're well-done), because I am constantly evaluating the filmmakers’ choices in comparison to the novel and thus cannot fully sink into the story. That’s kind of how I feel about Coldwater: I enjoyed parts of it as a guilty pleasure, and parts of it because I found it interesting to contemplate the choices that McConnochie made when reimagining the Brontës, but it never escapes from the shadows of the stories that inspired it.

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