Book review: Northanger Abbey

By Paula Green

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'Northanger Abbey' by Val McDermid.
'Northanger Abbey' by Val McDermid.

Val McDermid's Northanger Abbey is the second stage of The Austen Project, for which four writers have been invited to produce a contemporary version of a Jane Austen novel.

It gives you the chance to read the new book on its own terms and, if you are familiar with the original, enjoy the connections.

McDermid has a reputation as one of the major crime writers in Britain today - best-selling, award-winning. It is no surprise that she chose Northanger Abbey, with its ominous undercurrent, playful Gothic overtones and the building sense of unease about certain characters and events.

McDermid has translated the original into a contemporary context while still holding faith to most of Austen's narrative choices. It was diverting to fall upon the markers of our time - Harry Potter, Twitter, Facebook, modern food, slang, fashion, recent wars, etiquette and so on.

These are often accompanied by humour. When the hero is not sighted at the Book Festival grounds, Cat Morland fancies he might attend a dramatisation of a bestselling novel, which features love, zombies and patisserie.

The action is shifted to Scotland, set during the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

This feeds perfectly into Austen's engagement with books in her narrative. The festival provides good reason for reading discussion and reflects the wider visibility of books in modern times.

I wondered about the impact of social media upon Austen's plot and characters. With communication slow in her time (the arrival of a letter, gossip), it prolonged expectation and misunderstandings. It heightened the temperament of Austen's novel.

With instant communication available to McDermid, this version acquired an altogether different flavour. Fascinatingly so.

But, while the artefacts of our time have a striking presence, McDermid's atmosphere remains shallow. Cat Morland has a "passion for atmospheric architecture", along with books, yet it felt like a tacked-on enthusiasm. Cat is going on a vampire hunt but without the delicious unease of the original. Austen is understated, mysterious, foreboding.

McDermid's crime background did create a significant point of difference that added an intriguing sidestep. When Cat opens the mysterious trunk and searches through the stubborn compartments, she does not find linen ... I wanted more of this, more of McDermid - and that would have strengthened the reading experience.

What I loved about this book, though, was the way it took me back to Austen's original, returned me to the present, and raised all kinds of issues about living and loving in a digital age and, above all, reading and writing.

I can't wait to read the next two: Alexander McCall Smith's Emma later this year and Curtis Sittenfield's Pride & Prejudice (next year).

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (Borough Press $32.99).

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- NZ Herald

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