Here is a novel which combines the life stories and the novels of Daphne du Maurier and the Brontës, a literary mystery centred on the life and possible works of the saturnine Branwell Brontë in whom, we are told, the characters of Heathcliff and Mr Rochester are blended. All this in the hands of a writer – Justine Picardie – of skill and assurance and packaged in the inimitable Bloomsbury way – an elegant cover design, a satin ribbon marker. Just give me a comfy sofa, a roaring fire and the wind snapping around the house and let me indulge myself.
Perhaps my expectations were simply too high, alas, I could not get on with this book at all. As Picardie admits in her acknowledgements she became completely hooked on the background story behind Daphne du Maurier’s biography of Branwell Brontë. This shows clearly in the text but not in the right way. Her research feels only partially digested, making for an intriguing and complex read but an arid one. I found it hard to break through her detached biographical style to the emotional core and, consequently, difficult to engage with her characters.
I am sure the book will sell very well. The fashion for novels which unravel literary mysteries set by works such as Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, or Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, is still going strong, and Justine Picardie has a justifiably good reputation as a writer. In this case, however, I fear success will be a triumph of marketing over reader discrimination.