Monday musings on Australian literature: Novels retelling other literary works

Mirandi Riwoe, The fish girlThose who read my blog regularly will guess what inspired this post – Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (my review), which is her response to W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “The four fat Dutchmen” (my review). It got me thinking about how many other Australian novelists have done this sort of thing …

However, when you start researching this topic, my what a rabbit-hole you find! Firstly, what do you search under? Do you use words like “tribute” or “homage”. Well, no, because I wasn’t necessarily seeking novels which celebrate the original in that positive sense. Other search terms I tried were “responding to” (but even though I entered “novels responding to novels”, I mostly got hits about how readers respond to literature), “retelling”, “reworking”, and “riffing”. All these retrieved a variety of hits that contributed something, although when I added the term “Australian” into the mix, the results petered out somewhat. I also scouted around Wikipedia thinking surely there was something there to help me. I found various “list” pages, such as List of modernized adaptations of old literature and List of books based on works, but these were limited in their value, partly because they weren’t very comprehensive. However, during my Wikipedia travels, I did find a new term which is pretty perfect, I think, Parallel novels. One of the sources given for this article was from the West Milford Township Library, which defines the parallel novel:

A parallel novel owes its basic structure to a work by a different author. It can borrow a character and fill in his story, mirror an “old” plot or blend the characters of one book with those of another.

There is also, of course, the term “fan-fiction” but it’s somewhat tangential to what I was looking for – and is, to my mind, a separate group, albeit with some overlapping.

So, what was I looking for? Something more one-off, like, say, Lloyd Jones’ Mr Pip (Great expectations), Jane Smiley’s One thousand acres (King Lear), Jean Rhys’ The wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre), or Margaret Atwood’s The penelopiad (Homer’s Odyssey) (my review), all of which I’ve read and enjoyed. In other words, I wasn’t looking for novelists who had jumped on the bandwagon of a famous name (like Jane Austen, for example) or who wanted to continue a story they loved just because they loved the story or its characters. No, I was looking for novelists who wanted to explore a story from a different angle, often with some political or philosophical intent, though not necessarily so. There is, of course, a fine line in all this, and I certainly don’t want to offend authors who engage in the more popular style of “retellings”. After all, they’ve written a novel, which is more than I’ve done!

A few Australian parallel novels

I have read all the (few) books I list below, but some before blogging. If there’s a link on the book title, it’s to my review.

Geraldine Brooks’ March (Louisa May Alcott’s Little women): Brooks answers the question of what was the sisters’ father, Mr March, doing while he was away from home at the Civil War? It enabled Brooks, who is married to Civil War tragic Horowitz, to look at the Civil War from the point of view of an idealistic minister. He confronts the cruelty of war, not to mention his own failings, and learns that there are no simple answers to the rights and wrongs of war.

Peter Carey’s Jack Maggs (Charles Dickens’ Great expectations): As Brooks does in March, Carey fills in the story of a largely absent character in the original, the convict Magwitch. By having him return from the penal colony as a successful man, Carey forces readers to question issues like class, success and the power of money.

David Malouf Ransom

UK edition cover

David Malouf’s Ransom (section of the Iliad Books 22-24): Now, I have to admit that while I loved this book because Malouf writes so beautifully and so compassionately, I did wonder a little why he decided to write it. This is because, unlike the previous two books I’ve listed, he does not, as far as I can tell, retell the story in any major way, though he does flesh it out more, and in so doing, I suppose, he gives it a new slant. He also introduces a new character, Somax the cart driver, who provides an opportunity for Malouf to further develop Priam’s character. In the end, I decided that the book is about daring to dream – regardless of whether you are successful or not – and about the power (importance) of stories.

Mirandi Riwoe’s The fish girl (W. Somerset Maugham’s “The four fat Dutchmen”): As I wrote in my very recent review, Riwoe tells the story of the Maugham’s nameless, mistreated Malay girl, from the girl’s perspective. Although Riwoe tells her story third person – as against Maugham’s observational first person narrator – she gets into Mina’s head and creates in her a lively, resilient but ultimately naive and, more importantly, powerless young woman who is no match for the men who control the colonial and traditional worlds in which she lives.

Roslyn Russell, Maria Returns Barbados to Mansfield ParkRoslyn Russell’s Maria returns: Barbados to Mansfield Park (Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park): Russell’s book falls to some degree in the fan-fiction category, but it also works as parallel literature because it picks up the story of the disgraced Maria Bertram and imagines what might have happened to her. Could she redeem herself? Russell uses Maria as an excuse to explore the slavery issue, which is tantalisingly referred to in Mansfield Park but not explored. It’s a point of ongoing (some might say endless) fascination for readers and critics of this intriguing Austen novel!

There is a question germane to all this, which is whether you need to have read the original before you read the retelling. I’d argue that the work must stand on its own, as I think the above novels do. Knowing the original should surely enhance the read – besides that little fillip of pride when you recognise an allusion! – but it shouldn’t make the read.

What do you think? And, while we’re at it, are you interested in parallel novels? If you are, I’d love to hear your favourites.