I’ve been working on a big Brontë related project for what seems like ages, and I’ve just lined up another Brontë project for later in the year. I thought I was a bit Brontë’d out, but turns out I’m not. One of the things I love about the Brontë legacy is the way that it lives on, not just in the love of the books, in the brilliant film and television adaptations of the books and the documentaries about the family, but in the way that artists and writers find their own way to invest and expand on that legacy through their own work. In Ill Will we have just this, Michael Sewart has immersed himself in Wuthering Heights and followed Heathcliff out onto the moors, tracking him throughout the time he disappeared.
Of all the Brontë characters, Heathcliff is probably the most complex in terms of reader relationship and in terms of characterisation. He is a rough, nasty, violent, aggressive, overbearing character; a cruel character, but we also know he is vulnerable, has vulnerabilities and loves deeply and passionately. We feel his pain when he is hurt, but hate him too, for his actions. So it’s a brave decision for any writer to take that on and create a story around him.
To step back a little, I wanted to firstly comment on the quality of the book itself; the design is beautiful, it is tactile, beautifully weighted with good, thick paper and there is great attention to detail, including a beautifully illustrated map in the front. I do love a map in a book. I think the look of a book is important, or it is to me. If I buy a book I want it to feel good in my hands, I want it to feel robust and long lasting, I want it to look good on my bookcase shelf. The important bit is still the words inside, but all the same, I do tend to judge books by their covers.
Now, to the story, which flows well, smoothly, the characters are witty, well fleshed and there are parts of the story that are genuinely moving. It is gory, proper gory in places, and in my opinion, that’s what the book needs in order to reanimate and possess the anti-hero of Heathcliff and bring him to an audience who are less aghast at poor moral values, and yet still shocked by violence and yes, gore. Michael’s Heathcliff is more childlike than I remember him, tough it’s been a while since I read WH, and he is more vulnerable too. It’s fascinating to see the character reinterpreted through the eyes of another writer, I’m interested in the process, how he was built. There must have been a massive amount of research done in order to pull together the factual and the fictional.
Michael brings another character into Ill Will, to work alongside Heathcliff. It works well, engendering that vulnerable, emotional seam of Heathcliff, and allowing him to expand outside of the confines of evil, jealous and angry. This paring up of two quite different characters gives the story a great deal of momentum. It can’t all be gothic, dark, Brontë indulgence, sometimes there’s got to be a bit of humour, and a bit of texture.
I’m not giving anything about the plot away, you need to read it yourself, and you should, if only for the meticulous attention to the experience of long distance walking, something that I know Michael is familiar with. I believe he walked from Haworth to Liverpool as research. The other thing I love about this story is the use of language, the exploration of the the vernacular, the old slang words and the way the accents change from place to place. Thesis particularly well done.
It’s a good story, one for a rainy evening in front of a fire, or even better, a stormy night in bed with a guttering candle and a tap tap tapping of a branch (or was it a small white hand?) at the window. Go read it.