HOT BOOK DATE! Out on the wiley, windy moors with Heathcliff’s Tale
HOT BOOK DATE ™ is the literary equivalent of going to a public place, spying someone who has a pleasing face and can hold an interesting first conversation, then asking them out for a coffee based on just those factors. Except, you know, I’m a social recluse who only likes instant, and thus was born HOT BOOK DATE – I browse the shelves and sites of book purveyors, I see a book I like, and I take it for a whirl.
This time, my Saturday night date was Heathcliff’s Tale by Emma Tennant, published by Bloomsbury Reader – you can get it for your Kindle here (only £2.99 too!).
Emma Tennant has done what all Heathcliff fans secretly wanted to happen, and written the anti-hero-centered story of Heathcliff’s Tale. The tale in question is told from the perspective of Heathcliff and those around him, filling us in on some of the missing bits in Wuthering Heights.
Spending an extended period time in Heathcliff’s company was always going to be a treat. He’s one of the biggest enigmas in literature, and indeed in popular culture; take Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights, for example, and you don’t get a picture of Cathy so much as an idea of the echoing space left by the absence of Heathcliff’s response in the song. He’s passed into our literary consciousness a terrible cad – so I thought Tennant’s book was going to be good fun. And it was – but not in the way I’d expected.
Discovered as an ailing bed-dweller, Heathcliff soon slips back into his sly, tortured, blackly-humorous old self when the magic word of ‘Cathy’ gets thrown into the mix (like you didn’t think it was going to!). From there, the book rapidly evolves into an eclectic yarn spinning in and out of reality and fiction. Letters purporting to be from the original book’s characters, like Isabella and Mrs. Dean, offer the truth of Heathcliff’s life and origin – or do they?
Henry Newby, nephew of a publisher, is the main framing narrator. He soon becomes obsessed with rooting out Heathcliff’s tale and all its intricacies. We are confronted with editor’s notes insisting that Newby is less than sane, before being thrown back into his feverish digging. Unreliable narrators always amp up the tension – here is no different. Heathcliff himself looms over the book (naturally), and it’s not long before Newby and the readers are unsure of what or who he is. One minute he’s a swaggerer posing as a rich captain; the next, he’s a snarling gypsy.
The book itself is an excitable tapestry. Murder mysteries and intrigue vie with old magic and the uncanny. There’s a stand-out section in which the luckless Isabella reveals how Heathcliff medicates her with potions that cause her to have vivid nightmares and visions.
It’s a strange book in some respects: to place it within a genre would be a challenge. Heathcliff’s Tale is certainly very different from its parent book. The modern overlay is palpable (more explicit sexual passion, for example). But I didn’t find that it detracted from my enjoyment of the book.
Die-hard Brontëfans might find their noses out of joint at the alternate authorship suggestions Tennant ties into her narrative. There are also some errors – things that fans will almost definitely spot, but not serious enough to ruin the flow. Occasionally, there are slip-ups in the writing, leading to uneven phrases like “only my companion collie for company”. On the whole, though, the bumps are masked by a largely entertaining, well-paced narrative.
As for me? I think Heathcliff’s Tale is a decent enough gap-filler – give it a chance and don’t take it too seriously.
Worth a second date?
Definitely – you should try it on a stormy evening paired with brandy.