Desert Isle Keeper
Here’s a six-word summary of this book: Gender swapped Jane Eyre with vampires.
But before I begin my review of Mimi Matthews’ John Eyre, I have a confession to make. I never finished Jane Eyre, because Helen’s death was so sad I couldn’t read any more. So readers with more knowledge of the source material might enjoy this even more, but it’s an excellent story even if you’re not familiar with the names or references.
The story begins with John Eyre having accepted a position as tutor to two young boys at Thornfield Hall. John is running from demons – his poverty, his addiction to laudanum, and the recent suicide of his friend Helen, a woman trapped in an abusive marriage. But he soon discovers he’s fled straight into an even darker situation. Thick mists surround Thornfield Hall, there are too few servants, and the mistress of the house is not just widowed but absent too often.
Worst of all is the condition of the children he’s supposed to teach; they’ve been traumatized to the point where they’re completely nonverbal. Oh, and under the instructions of their guardian, Mrs. Rochester, they have to drink a tonic that contains laudanum.
This is a gripping setup, and Ms. Matthews’ usual attention to historical detail is very much in evidence. The secretive atmosphere of Thornfield Hall is described vividly, and I felt all of John’s trepidation about his new post. He wants to help the children, yet he can’t risk harming them any further. Most of all, he’s very much aware that he can be dismissed instantly if he puts a foot out of line.
In other words, this is definitely not a historical that ignores class distinctions, and when Bertha Rochester finally arrives, her manner towards John is very much that of a superior addressing a paid employee. But it’s also clear that she’s hiding a dangerous secret, and as she and John grow closer, the gradual unraveling of the mystery made this an exciting read. All the chapters in the present are told from John’s point of view, but these are interwoven with letters from Bertha Mason (she’s unmarried at the time) to her best friend Blanche, written two years earlier. These build up her backstory to a terrifying peak.
I also enjoyed Bertha Rochester’s characterization. She’s protective of the boys, but she’s hands-off and not what I’d consider nurturing. She’s cynical and proud, but she’s very competent at what she does and she loves traveling abroad. The only downside of her fascinating and driven personality is that John takes rather a passive role compared to her. There’s nothing wrong with such a balance, but readers who prefer more forceful heroes might want to be aware of this.
As for the plot, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I was reading as fast as I could to find out what would happen next. The only stumble was at the end, because when a threat is built up to epic proportions, it feels a bit anticlimactic for that threat to be dispatched without an equally epic struggle.
Another potential issue is the depiction of the two children. I really like that the story doesn’t take the predictable route and have them immediately recognize John as their new daddy. They felt like real people, not plot moppets. But they’re also Romani children who are growing up away from their homeland and their culture, and they’ve even been given British names (we never learn what their original names were). Readers who’d find this problematic should be advised.
On the whole, though, John Eyre is a fast-paced and riveting read, not to mention a great subversion of the gothic trope where the innocent young governess falls for the brooding anti-hero with the dark secret. And as I said at the start: gender swapped Jane Eyre with vampires. I hope Mimi Matthews writes another such book.