Books: Emily knew best

WINDWARD HEIGHTS by Maryse Conde trs Richard Philcox, Faber pounds 7.99
Click to follow
IT'S AN intriguing idea. Take Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and transpose it to late 19th-century Cuba and Guadeloupe. Swap those chilly, windswept Yorkshire moors for the sweaty savanna. Exchange social isolation and snobbery for - post emancipation - a preoccupation with colour and caste. Instead of a ragged Liverpudlian orphan, give us - in a society of mulattos and white Creoles - a "little black boy with a well- developed sex".

It's this early, delighted reference to young Rayze's penis size that sets the tone for Conde's big, fat, sweltering novel. This is Yorkshire melodrama with all the sex you always knew was there, but never (thankfully) had spelled out for you on Bronte's tense, haunting pages. Here is a hero who "drenches" women with his "frothy white seed" - a blatant "nigger stud with his iron spike pointing between his legs". No one who has read Bronte's original and been moved by its eerie emotional complexity, would deny that it is fundamentally about sexual passion. But doesn't its erotic power stem from the author's fierce, perhaps involuntary, inhibition? What's more - and this is far from involuntary --it benefits from a brilliantly laconic narrator, Nelly Dean.

Nelly is, I now see, a stunningly effective device. Wuthering Heights may be a tale of love, death and physical and emotional sadism, but it's the contrast between the terrible and dramatic events and the level, modest domestic context in which it is told (to a bored, curious Lockwood) that makes us shudder. Conde's narrative - told from a range of viewpoints, but in a dramatic staccato which tips itself too easily into monotony - is full of sweeping verbal gestures, melodramatic asides. Servants, servants' children, every parent and sibling, all add their stories. Gone is the chilling, deadpan sanity of Nelly Dean. Sometimes it snakes (page for page) alongside Bronte's original, but at other times the tale throws in added extras. We get to know, for instance, what Rayze got up to in those years when, learning that Cathy would never stoop to marry him, he ran off only to return richer and harder. We are allowed into his thoughts, his bedroom and, yes, his bed.

Yet it's interesting that such knowledge, far from adding to the original, only dampens its power. For, to a far greater extent than I ever realised, Wuthering Heights is a novel built on dark gaps, lost years, unspoken sentiments and vitally unfathomable souls.