Books: Love among the wood-stoves

Just 150 years after Heathcliff and Cathy met on the moors, a US novelist has taken their story to New England - and turned it round. Wendy Brandmark enjoys the new perspective; Here on Earth by Alice Hoffman Chatto & Windus, pounds 15.99
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Imagine Wuthering Heights set in a small New England town during the last 30 years. The characters escape not to wild moors but marshes haunted by foxes and the souls of drowned men. The names have been changed but we recognise Heathcliff in Hollis, a homeless delinquent boy rescued from the streets of Boston by the kindly lawyer, Mr Murray; Hindley in Alan Murray, the feckless son who cannot forgive Hollis for usurping his place in the family; and Catherine in March Murray, the wilful daughter who falls in love with her adopted brother. Years later when she returns to the town for the funeral of her housekeeper Judith Dale, the Nelly Dean of the novel, she resumes her affair with Hollis, turning her back on her family and her work as a jewellery maker.

Since she left, Hollis transformed himself from a beggar to the richest man in town. He has bought up not only the Murray house where he was made to feel a servant, but also the home of his rival, March's gentle husband Richard, the Edgar Linton of the book. After his wife died in a fire, March's brother Alan became an alcoholic and recluse. He allowed his enemy Hollis to bring up his son Hank, who lives like a poor relation on the crumbs his adoptive father will allow him.

Hoffman has turned around their stories. March and her husband Richard are allowed to live and possibly be reconciled. Alan redeems himself, and even Hollis is given some credit for saving Hank from destitution. Yet Bronte's novel casts a shadow over this book; it is too easy to compare the two and find the latter disappointing. Because the love story in Wuthering Heights was narrated by the rational Nelly Dean, we could accept its melodrama, and believe in its characters, but Hoffman has no such artifice. March and Hollis seem too ordinary for such a passionate affair. The narcissistic love between Catherine and Heathcliff, which shocks us with its cruel beauty and disregard for the rules of lower mortals, is transformed into a tale of domestic violence, jealousy and possession.

But Hoffman's true intention becomes apparent near the end. She has subverted the original to question its vision of eternal love and the power of destiny. March's descent into a kind of slavery of love in which she forgives a man who holds her a virtual prisoner, relinquishes her daughter and becomes a stranger to herself is sharply observed. Hoffman shows us the dangers of losing ourselves in someone else. When March returns to her husband, we feel not disheartened as we did after Catherine married the feeble Edgar Linton, but relieved, for Hollis emerges as a criminal and a wife- batterer. We cannot see why she would give up a good man for him.

When Hoffman frees herself from the enchantment of Wuthering Heights, the book becomes compelling, the writing fluent. She evokes the small town with its smells of cinnamon bread and wood-burning stoves, its superstitions and gossip with empathy and humour. In the history and atmosphere of this bit of New England, her own romanticism shines through. Though she dedicates the book to Bronte, her vision of love is more realistic and compassionate. Catherine and Heathcliff are united in death; but Hoffman allows at least some of her characters redemption and love "here on earth".

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