Friday, July 13, 2007

Riffing on the classics

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good talent must be in want of a subject. And frequently the inspiration comes from the classics. Here are two recent but very different takes on eternal and much loved themes. For some light, summer reading I recommend Shannon Hale's Austenland. Our heroine Jane (of course) has a history of bad relationships because, in her mind, no man can ever live up to attributes of Mr. Darcy (she is obsessed with BBC Colin Firth production). Her wealthy aunt leaves her a unique vacation in her will - Jane is sent to a Georgian mansion in England for three weeks, populated by actors who dress, talk and act as though they were in Regency England (with differing levels of success). Will a dose of manufactured historical "reality" cure Jane of her Darcy blues? Will she fall for the disdainful Mr. Nobley, the congenial Colonel Andrews, the (gasp!) gardener Martin or renounce all men forever? Well, if you know your P & P you can pretty well guess the outcome but you'll encounter a few giggles along the way.
However, the book I really want to rave about is Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip which will be available in North America at the end of July. The novel was first published in Jones' native Australia where it won the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for Best Book and it's getting rave reviews in Britain. The excellent book blog The Literary Saloon which regularly reviews books, gave this novel an A+ (a rating which it almost never gives out). You can read their review and roundup here. The novel is not so much a retelling of Great Expectations as an homage both to the book and some of the shared themes especially about the wonder and confusion of childhood. Matilda lives on an island in the South Pacific that is undergoing a civil war. The only white person left in her village is Mr. Watts, who as the children's schoolteacher, reads to them from Great Expectations. Matilda becomes entranced by the story and the characters and one day lovingly scrawls "Mister Pip" into the sand on the beach. When the soldiers see the writing and demand to know who this Mister Pip is, they aren't convinced he's just a fictional character, especially when Mr. Watts' copy of the book has disappeared. The devastating repercussions on Matilda's village and her subsequent life occupy the rest of the story. The writing is beautiful and at its core is the imaginative power of a single work of literature to influence and change lives. This is a book for those who loved Dai Sijie's Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Yann Martel's Life of Pi, or even William Golding's Lord of the Flies. And as with all these novels, this coming of age story is absolutely one to recommend to YA readers. Slip them Great Expectations as a follow-up, and hopefully they will become Dickens fans for life. For another fictional take on the novel, you could also read Peter Carey's Jack Maggs.

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