Saturday, 6 April 2013

Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson: Book review

What to drink

Strawberry velvet cocktail

Not an authentic cocktail as such, I envisage this as a mix of strawberry puree, vanilla ice cream and chambord, with a shot of vodka. Fittingly, this would be a crimson cocktail - the colour of blood and our heroine’s hair. Creamy and luxurious, this drink seems sweet at first but leaves a cloying taste in the mouth and sits like a lead weight in the stomach.

What’s what

Strands of Bronze and Gold is a retelling of the Bluebeard fairy tale. As fairytales go, it’s not one I’m intimately familiar with, aside from the recollection that Bluebeard was a murderous lunatic who massacred all his previous wives. In fact this turns out to be the gist of both the fairytale and the book - but the book somehow manages to not quite do this meagre source material justice.

It got off to a good start - our main character Sophie was sufficiently spunky and original, with an amusing inner monologue. The book is set in the antebellum South, a setting which works to create the overall disquieting atmosphere of gothic dread.

Perhaps the first few chapters are a bit slow, but they are entertaining in a voyeuristic way, as like Sophie we are drawn into the luxurious world of her godfather Bernard. Thankfully Sophie realises fairly early on that Bernard is an unappealing perv so we aren’t subjected to too much Fifty Shades of Grey style drooling on her part. The air of menace is built up fairly well, and suspense develops from the genuine unpredictability of Bernard’s actions and Sophie’s scheming to placate him.

"Thinking like him was impossible. He was mad. His madness encompassed a terrible selfishness with neither compassion nor empathy, a terrible anger, a terrible possessiveness and a terrible lust for blood." Pg 318

Unfortunately Strands… is not without its problems. A subplot focussing on slavery and the Underground Railway fizzles out narratively and raises some questions surrounding the book’s treatment of race. None of the black characters in the novel are fully fleshed out, existing only as devices to assist the characterisation of Bernard and Sophie. We know Bernard is Bad because he beats the slaves. We know Sophie is Good because she feels pity for the slaves. The slaves themselves, the Abolitionist movement, and the full horrors of the institution of slavery are not developed beyond this limited use.

All of the novel’s characters except for its heroine and villain are in fact subject to this flat ineffectual realisation. Ok, yes - the story is about the suffocating and abusive relationship between Bernard and Sophie but I think this would have been highlighted even more if we had a sense of the world and the people she was being cut off from. It is hard to understand the sacrifice she makes in agreeing to marry Bernard for the sake of her family as to the reader they are little more than ciphers, and unsympathetic ciphers at that. Gideon, her alternative love interest, is engaging enough at first - but again it’s hard to emphasize when these two fall in ‘love’ seemingly overnight.

The second half of the book does not work at all - there are big issues with the pacing here. As with so much horror writing there is a swift descent into the macabre which quickly becomes ridiculous and so not in the least frightening. The paranormal elements of the novel worked as vague suggestions but are overdone and unnecessary towards the end. And this is where the book could really have done with sticking more to its source material. On re-reading Bluebeard on wikipedia, it’s really fucking gruesome! Where are the pools of bloods and hooks on the walls? Or at least tell-tale stained keys and morbid curiosity? Some of the more interesting elements of the original story seem to have been jettisoned and sadly the padding Nickerson added to her take on the tale was little compensation.


Doesn’t live up to its initial promise. Fairytale retellings have to justify the extra pages they add to the Grimm Brothers’ originals versions and this did not.

On the big screen

I don’t see this working except as a low-budget late-night horror flick. The storyline is too predictable and devoid of surprises for even the likes of a channel five made for tv movie, and Sophie’s witty inner monologue would no doubt be lost behind a pretty, insipid face.


Great literature this ain’t, although bonus literary points for folk roots? I feel as if beneath the romance trappings and silly ending there is a great masterpiece waiting to be written based on the Bluebeard fairytale… or maybe not.

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