Saturday, 2 November 2013

Review: Havisham by Ronald Frame

Ronald Frame
Faber & Faber
368 pages

'Our lives are fictions. How others interpret us. What we allow others to do with us. What we make of ourselves. What we fancy, make believe, we might do.'

This book was the final straw/last nail in the coffin for me in that it has finally proven to me that you cannot start reading a book with certain expectations. I've been wanting to read Havisham for ages and ages, all the while thinking I knew how it was vaguely going to go and how it was going to be written. In terms of plot, yes, my expectations were more or less fulfilled but in terms of writing - I was completely off the mark. I was expecting a run of the mill novel with all the usual character/plot devices and no funny business with the writing style. I hadn't expected it to be, what I can only call, experimental. And then, I hadn't expected it to be so beautiful. Lesson learned: don't have expectations.

Havisham, as can easily be inferred, tells the story of Dickens's Miss Havisham and how she becomes the infamous manipulator of Estella and Pip. The back story Frame creates for Catherine Havisham makes it hard to believe that she could have turned into anything other than what she does. She begins the story as a naive, curious, energetic and intelligent young girl aware of her standing in society but not taking much notice of it (she forms a very strong bond with a maid). But she is lied to, manipulated and used quite ferociously for the gain of others until she herself becomes a master manipulator intent on revenge (enter Estella).  

The best way I can describe the writing in Havisham is like a series of pictures. It flows and is a linear story but small things are focused on in detail and described with marvellous skill. It is a character study more than a plot-driven novel which I think explains this unusual style. Although the story is significant and obviously present, it felt like we were being introduced to Miss Havisham and elements of her personality slowly revealed to us through her actions and interactions. It is a series of pictures punctuated by quotes from writers, poets and philosophers which made the reading experience even richer and more enlightening. 

Havisham overlaps with Great Expectations quite considerably towards the end but it still sticks to the other side of the story, Miss Havisham's side, rather than trying to unrealistically weave in elements of Dickens's original tale. There are some wonderfully metafictional sections, though, around Pip as the author/narrator which would please any lover of Great Expectations.

For a new twist on an old story and some disarmingly beautiful writing, I would really recommend reading Havisham. I think whether you've read Great Expectations or not, or whether you even like it or not, Havisham is an emotive story about women's roles in Victorian England and what women will do to get by. 

'The engagement banns were read.

   I surrendered myself to everything, and became - 
   that cherry tree throwing its branches
   the flame leaping on the new wick
   the water tumbling joyfully over the weir
   the fragrant spring wind seeping trough the window cracks
   the yellow cart rolling down the street
   the vigorous hyacinths sprouting from their bulbs, after a dark cupboard-growing
   the old Roman bricks stuck into the flint wall at the bottom of the garden, when I would sit in the mild sun staring and staring in front of me.
   I was still trying to believe my luck.'



  1. ALL RIIIIIIGHT. Jesus, like forcing me to read Wilkie wasn't enough, now you're adding to my wishlist as well. FORTUNATELY FOR YOU I can't be too mad, because... y'know, the Ellie Army and all that. (Do we have a secret handshake yet? Could it not involve spitting please?)

  2. I haven't even read Great Expectations *hangs head in shame*, however, what I have gathered from Thursday Next books (ain't literary world so wonderfully layered and connected), Havisham is an intriguing and definitely not a boring character. Glad you liked the book!


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