“‘I do not wish to be a woman.’
‘My dear. I’m afraid we none of us has the choice.’
‘I do not wish to be a lady, then.’
‘I cannot blame you.'”
It is rare to come across a tale as transporting and thorough as the latest epic novel from the author of Fall on Your Knees, Ann-Marie MacDonald. Deeply embedded in Brontëan language, poetic descriptions, and a sense of gothic mystery, it is hard to believe that this tome of a book was originally published only last year in Canada. And, thanks to the powerhouse publishing company Tramp Press, Fayne is soon to be accessible in Ireland and the UK, and it makes for a mighty special pick as August’s Book of the Month.
Set in the “disputed country” between Scotland and England of the 1870s, Fayne opens with a welcome pamphlet for modern-day visitors of the stately country estate Fayne. In atmospheric language, it tells the history of the Bells, the family who inhabited it, and its surrounding countryside. Shrouded in a more formal language, it is easy to glance away from this pamphlet without acknowledging its warnings and nods towards the story, but it doubtless lends to the atmosphere and the austerity of the setting that is about to unfold.
We then move into the perspective of twelve-year-old Charlotte Bell, daughter of the lord of the house, Henry, who is isolated from the rest of the world due to her mysterious ‘Condition’. She holds a fascination with the world, yet a disconnect from society. Her father spends most of the days in his bedroom, occasionally coming out for dinner or to act as her tutor. The child is extraordinarily clever and shows an increasing unrest in her solitude, until her twelfth birthday when she is gifted a tutor. While the tutor doesn’t remain for long, he opens a world for Charlotte, a world of knowledge and questions, and a journey towards self-discovery. As the story evolves, so too does the myriad characters and voices, those of which MacDonald explores and inhabits seamlessly, building a book that veers between horrific, hilarious, hopeful, and heartbreaking.
As the story switches between tenses and perspectives, the reader gains insight into the many facets of Charlotte’s history and comes to think that, despite the almost tedious lifestyle that Charlotte experiences at the opening of the novel, all is not how it seems, and MacDonald soon implies that the reader is in for a story of twists and turns, revelations and discoveries, and she raises topics that are as important to a modern-day reader as they are to the characters in the book: those of gender and sexuality, of identity and belonging, of equality and loneliness.
In a world where shorter novels are becoming more and more popular, you might baulk at the idea of a story that’s over 700 pages long but let me assure you: each page is essential and worthwhile as MacDonald draws you ever closer to such endearing and finely wrought characters as feature in Fayne. It is truly a modern classic.
A wonderfully clever and wickedly funny book, which carries the weight of its themes of identity and self-image with a buoyant grace and passion.Donal Ryan
Exhilarating, funny and deeply moving. Ann-Marie MacDonald’s talent is, quite simply, staggering.Sophie White
If I read a better book this year then I’ll count myself lucky … I envy anyone who gets to read it for the first time.Aoife Martin
Fayne is published by Tramp Press
9781915290090 // PB // £15.99 // 17th August 2023