Book Review: Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson
This book is so far off my usual beaten reading path that I can’t even. But it caught my eye both for the cover (yeah, yeah, I know) and for the blurb. The book bills itself as a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale.
Now, I couldn’t recall what the Bluebeard story was about (Was it the Grimm story in which the hero has to whittle a key out of a finger or – ?) but if there’s anything I love more than pretty covers, it’s retellings of classic stories. So I got myself the book.
Turns out, Bluebeard is a French folktale by Charles Perrault: Girl forced to marry rich nobleman. Discovers rich nobleman keeps the corpses of his wives in the basement. Nobleman tries to kill girl. Girl’s family kills nobleman. Girl inherits big.
You know, the stuff Disney movies are made of. Or Lifetime movies.
The story takes this framework, shakes it out, and modernizes it for the pre-Civil War U.S. South. It also ramps up the creepy factor.
In this version, spirited red-head Sophie has left her humble home and siblings to live with her insanely-rich and super-generous plantation-owning godfather, Monsieur Bernard de Cressac. Once Sophie arrives at his Mississippi estate, the 17-year-old is lavished with everything she could wish and wants for nothing. But since this is a book, we know that’s not what’s going to happen. Because who gets their happily ever after on page 2?
Turns out, Bernard has recently, tragically lost his wife, his latest of four, all of whom had beautiful red hair. Turns out, Bernard isn’t always above board about what’s going on in his house.
This story is a relentless dive into an abusive, controlling relationship. The age difference, Bernard’s obsession, his mood swings, the painfully slow escalation of controlling behavior, and Sophie’s dawning realization that it’s her job to manage his feelings, all serve to create a tense claustrophobic callback to the gothic genre, in which the innocent young woman finds herself isolated in a mansion, facing a looming threat to her sanity and virtue.
This book is Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca without the romance. What’s even more painful is how both aware and oblivious Sophie is to her situation. She becomes an unwilling but active participant in this dynamic, even as she tries to scrape a tiny bit of space for herself within it – with tragic ramifications. And then, of course, she makes terrible 17-year-old decisions. The reader suspects the danger to Sophie is deadly, but she only instinctively senses it, and that only sometimes.
Did I like this book? No. It was uncomfortable, oppressive, and meticulous. Which, to be fair, defines the Gothic horror genre, so…
Here’s who I’d recommend this book for:
- Gothic horror fans! Remember, uncomfortable, oppressive. All the good stuff.
- Lovers of historical fiction and historical detail. The diary-like narration is fastidious about the details of who ate what, and who wore what, and what the slave song said, and abolitionism and the time period. It was beautifully written, but mileage may vary.
- Folks who enjoy books like Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, but are okay with a byronic villain rather than hero.
- I know this is billed YA, and there were certain things that did lean more YA (Sophie’s interest in doing good with the Underground Railroad, say) but damn, what a heavy book for a kid. Maybe, as an adult, I have more context for what’s happening, but it sure read to me as an adult book with a teen heroine.
- I bet the audiobook is gorgeous!
If this book sounds like it’s right up your alley, good news! There’s more where this came from. Nickerson has also just published The Mirk and Midnight Hour, a retelling of “Tam Lin,” set during the US Civil War.
(A beautifully written read that I just didn’t enjoy.)