Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey

I read Val McDermid’s reinvisioning of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey a while ago, courtesy of one of the egalley sites, and very much enjoyed it. This surprised me because Austen’s original is perhaps my least favorite of her novels, but McDermid pulls this new version off glowingly.

First of all, a well-known writer of adult crime fiction, McDermid does an excellent job with her sentence-level writing — that light wit and cleverness of Austen is nicely channelled. Having read a number of mediocre attempts to update Austen, this mattered to me enormously.  And then, she plays most amusingly with the recent obsession so many young woman had with the Twilight novels, a clever updating of Austen’s original heroine’s obsession with gothic romances.  Finally, she uses Edinburgh during the Book Festival as stand-in for the original’s Bath. Last summer, I was there for the first time and fell in love with the city and event. And so I can say for sure that McDermid does a lovely job capturing the sensibility of that time and location.

Now I’m delighted to see that Jo Baker, whose own Austen reinvisioning, Longbourn, was rightly celebrated last year (my review here), has enthusiastically reviewed this title for the New York Times.  She concludes:

Austen’s “Northanger Abbey” was in part a playful response to what she considered “unnatural” in the novels of her day: Instead of perfect heroes, heroines and villains, she offers flawed, rounded characters who behave naturally and not just according to the demands of the plot. So while everything in Austen is made up, nothing is ever a lie. McDermid’s writing has a similar honesty: She doesn’t let easy clichés or stereotypes slip by. In her crime fiction, the situations may be extreme, but her characters are human. This is also true of her “Northanger Abbey.” It may be an adaptation of someone else’s novel, which itself is woven with references to other, earlier books, but nothing feels forced, nothing feels untrue. McDermid makes it very much her own, although any skeletons in the cupboards remain strictly metaphorical.

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