The Madwoman Upstairs
Pub Date: 01 Mar 2016
“Sunshine has a way of softening the recollection of the previous evening. But when I walked outside in the morning, the sun was nowhere to be found. The sky was a dull shade of concrete.”
Catherine Lowell’s delightful debut novel follows the only remaining descendant of the Brontë family – Samantha Whipple – as she arrives at Oxford University and (to quote the marketing material) “embarks on a modern-day literary scavenger hunt to find the family’s long-rumored secret estate, using only the clues her eccentric father left behind, and the Brontës’ own novels.”
Samantha, at the behest of her dead father, has taken up a seat at Oxford to study English Literature, but is less than amused to arrive to find that her accommodation is a room at the top of an isolated old tower, attached to the old college, that once housed victims of the plague. It is a grim place with peeling red paint and a horrible painting of an old woman (called The Governess ) hanging on the wall. All she want is to get on and learn – a task she thinks might, at least, be interesting when she discovers her tutor J Timothy Orville III is pleasing on the eye.
But as her ‘Bronte’ identity is revealed by the college newspaper, and everyone begins to think her father must have left her whole host of Bronte goodies – when in fact he left her nothing but a cryptic ‘Warnings of Experience’ message – events start to take a strange turn as personal copies of her dad’s books that should have perished in the fire that claimed his life, mysteriously start to appear in her room, and a literature hide-and-seek game ensues.
This is a wonderfully constructed piece of fiction, that constantly plays with the very concepts and ideas that lie at the heart of classics it references. The setting of the university and the tutor/pupil relationship especially allows Lowell to throw in conflicting approaches to literary criticism whilst at the same time driving forward the plot. So we examine that age-old question of whether this is truth in fiction or fiction in truth, or both; the question of how far you project an author’s actual live onto their work, to explain their work; the ‘reliability’ of the narrator. It also looks at also idea of editing, and how things were often sanitised and managed by estates to protect the author/artist including willful destruction of diary entries, letters etc. that would contradict the character ‘created’ for them, and questions how often the thing you think you want most, is not really what you want.
This is, quite literally, a literary novel.
I loved it. Samantha is a likable wise-cracking protagonist, and the blend of the literary and the mystery is handled well enough to make this a genuine page-turner.
Of course the idea to take classic fiction and use its themes and/or characters for a new book is nothing new, and indeed, one of my favourite recent(ish) examples of this was Autoro Perez-Reverte’s Dumas Club (I loved that book) In fact I remember someone once describing Dumas Club as a beach book for intellectuals, and I suppose the same could be said for this. I’d have been more than happy to have been on a beach reading it (as opposed to being in a cold, wet, London).
Early days yet, but certainly the most enjoyable book I’ve read so far in 2016, and one that I’m likely to buy as gifts for others.
Review copy provided by Touchstone/NetGalley