For anyone who read "Jane Eyre" wishing for swifter, more final fates for the cruelest characters, Jane Steele is here to grant your wishes. Lyndsay Faye's "Jane Steele" re-imagines Jane Eyre as a serial killer.
At age 9, Jane is unceremoniously orphaned and left at the mercy of a bitter aunt and fawning, oafish 13-year-old cousin. The first murder of the novel takes place after her cousin advances upon her in the woods. She's able to fight him off with a threat, but when he asks her to be his friend again, she's filled with rage and ends up accidentally pushing him to his death.
She blames herself for his advances, and the resulting murder, because she didn't scream the first time he exposed himself to her.
"You are going to have to lie like the very devil to live through this," she tells herself afterward, and proceeds to develop a keen and charming knack for self-preservation.
When her aunt ships her off to a girls' boarding school run by a sadistic, self-righteous headmaster, it's not hard to imagine who her next victim will be. It's at this boarding school that Jane meets Rebecca Clarke, with whom she has the most interesting relationship in the novel. Jane takes on the role of Rebecca's protector as naturally as though they were born sisters. After the headmaster's untimely death, they flee the boarding school together and make a life for themselves in London. In one of the many wonderful period-inspired details, Jane makes her living by writing "last confessions" of the recently hanged for a tabloid paper.
In the novel's second half, as the narrative moves away from Rebecca and toward Highgate House (the book's version of Thornfield Hall) and our Byronic hero, the story feels less fresh. There's good chemistry between Jane and Charles Thornfield, but as we plunge deeper into his mysterious past and the many characters involved in it, the story gets bogged down in a history lesson about the Sikh wars in India. Jane's voice during these sections is toned down, and it is a testament to the pleasure of Jane's usual narration that this shift is conspicuous.
Like the classic upon which it is based, "Jane Steele" is not a fast read. Many of the sentences are long, but the careful reader will be rewarded with Jane's wit and insight. "Jane Steele" is a fresh and imaginative takeoff on "Jane Eyre," and will leave readers with plenty of fodder for discussion.
Rebecca Kanner is the author of "Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah's Wife" and "Esther." She teaches at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis. Her website is rebeccakanner.com.