Books March 2012

Cover to Cover

IBM Corporation/Associated Press

The Flight of Gemma Hardy
Margot Livesey

Do we need another Jane Eyre? Surprisingly, yes. Livesey, a Scottish-born writer who lives in Massachusetts, sets her version in 1950s and ’60s Scotland and, charmingly, Iceland, and gives Jane’s righteous backbone and vulnerable heart to her protagonist. Livesey follows Brontë’s form, but so convincingly does she create her own character’s life and surroundings that the original soon recedes, its story a beloved, familiar body dressed in an entirely new and vibrant wardrobe. Livesey’s style—richly evoking emotion and place with a precision that supplies restraint—is ideal for this dramatic and deeply thoughtful story of mistreatment, soul-searching, and love. That this novel can take on a new life in a different century attests to the quality of both Brontë’s and Livesey’s work, but the curse (from a novelist’s point of view) of modern tolerance mars one element of the plot. Although she tries, Livesey hasn’t hit upon the 20th-century equivalent of Brontë’s wedding-day revelation—perhaps none can exist, and modern times demand a different sort of dilemma. Still, although the revelation Livesey invents is irritating for some pages, that’s easy to overlook as this luscious story sweeps on.

Rough-Hewn Land
Keith Heyer Meldahl

Meldahl turns over stones, from California to the Rocky Mountains, to present the geologic story of America’s West—a rough, mountainous region that owes its seismic liveliness to the dogged movement of the continent away from the ancient landmass of Pangaea. Meldahl is a professor of geology, but no academese taints the prose that he uses to explain many of the West’s most salient features—the presence of gold, the system of faults, the creation of the Great Salt Lake, the exposed granite of the Sierra Nevada, the Cambrian fossil fields. In fact, the writing is so conversational that it’s hard to believe this is science. Meldahl, the author of Hard Road West, a brilliant geological history of the westward migration, shows how geologic events have influenced human history, but clearly here the Earth most excites him. He wants, he writes, to “inform the wonderment that everyone feels when confronted with the spectacular geologic world of the American West.” He’s captured that wonder, as well as the facts that produced it, in this vaguely unsettling (so much activity in what we depend on to be still and solid) and enlightening book.

What They Do in the Dark
Amanda Coe

This arresting and disturbing debut novel focuses on two 10-year-old girls in a gritty 1970s Yorkshire town. Middle-class Gemma buys comics and candy, wears her hair in perfect pigtails, and is entrusted with special jobs at school. She imagines herself with the colorful, comical life of the girl in her favorite TV show, a girl who exists “without parents, but looked after,” but when her mother leaves her father to move in with another man, Gemma is, in some crucial ways, as little looked after as her schoolmate Pauline, a monstrously uncared-for bully. Coe’s rendering of the casual way in which adults continually put their own interests ahead of the children who depend on them rings chillingly true; and if the horror that results when Pauline’s amorality and violence combine with Gemma’s rage and despair is extreme, it’s not unbelievable. The grubby hardness of the 1970s, with its pervasive cigarette smoke, its greasy foods and sugary drinks (“the so-called hot chocolate, with its sweet, powdery bottom layer and topping of tepid purple foam”), is an ideal medium for this story’s underlying creepiness. Coe underscores her themes with a second layer of plot—a movie featuring the child star of the TV show is being filmed in town—and, although she clearly knows moviemaking, the novel falters in the sections devoted to an American producer whose vapidity, suspect in the hands of an English author, makes her tedious. Coe has many credits as a screenwriter, so the tight structure and exquisite tension-building throughout might be expected, but her pitch-perfect, unsentimental evocation of the pleasures, confusions, yearnings, and vulnerabilities of girls is what makes this a stunningly accomplished novel.

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