REVIEW: What Souls Are Made Of: A Wuthering Heights Remix by Tasha Suri
Jennie: When Janine brought this book to my attention and suggested we review it together, I was both intrigued and trepidatious. There exists a theory that readers are either Jane Eyre fans or Wuthering Heights fans, and that never the twain shall meet. Of course there are readers who love or hate or are indifferent to both books, but given that they written by sisters, each with her own unique take on romantic love, comparisons are inevitable.
Anyway, in my mind, Janine is a Wuthering Heights person and I am a Jane Eyre person. That is, I’m sure, a simplistic distillation of reality; Janine can speak more to her feelings on each book, obviously. I have read Jane Eyre twice, in high school and college, and seen countless adaptations of it. I’m not a die-hard fan but I like it a lot; I think Jane is an awesome, unique character and Rochester is entertainingly broody and the story progresses in an interesting way.
Janine: I felt trepidation too, but for different reasons. I love retellings of fairy tales but retellings of literary classics often don’t work for me, because the voice of the original author and the voice of the retelling author are different. Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite classics, so a retelling of it is a particularly tall order to pull off. But this one is by Tasha Suri, the author of my favorite book of 2021 (The Jasmine Throne, the first installment of The Burning Kingdoms, an epic romantic fantasy trilogy) and her explanation of why she wanted to retell this particular story made me feel she got Wuthering Heights.
Suri called the classic novel a favorite of hers, “a strange and polarizing book: dark and gothic, passionately romantic and pointedly cruel. It’s also the story of the destructive influence of a boy who doesn’t belong: a boy who looks ‘foreign’ without having any particular history of cultural identity; a monstrous boy who has no place, no family, no right to want things, and wants them anyway.
She goes on to say,
I want to write a reclamation that says: everyone comes from somewhere, and colonialism may try to make us its monsters, but we don’t have to let it. I hope my re-imagining will also help make readers a little more aware of the long, long history of South Asians in Britain. There’s so much history that we’re not taught that young readers deserve to know about.”
There was no way I wouldn’t read this book.
Re Jane Eyre–it was impossible to give that book a fair shake to because I knew the big spoiler going in. That took the suspense out of it and made it an unengaging slog through dense nineteenth century prose. But I thought it would be really interesting for us to review What Souls are Made Of together since I’m a passionate fan of Wuthering Heights and you are distinctly not.
Jennie: I read Wuthering Heights once about 11 years ago, and reviewed it and thought that the story was…kind of insane? It was hard for me to like it because Heathcliff and Cathy were such miserable people who brought their unhappiness on themselves while screwing up the lives of the people around them as well. I’ve since seen readers say that that’s the point, but it doesn’t make me like it any better (and I’m not sure I agree, anyway).
If I take both books together, I find that there is one likeable character among the four main protagonists – Jane. In my mind, Rochester is more recognizably human (albeit a real jerk!) than either Cathy or Heathcliff – I don’t always like him, but I can in a very general way relate to him. I will say that some of the textual analyses I’ve read over the years and my reading of Wide Sargasso Sea have cast Rochester in a different, more sinister light. There are both gender and, arguably, racial politics that form a lens through which Rochester is at least as much of a monster as the Wuthering Heights couple. But just in the context of the actual book Jane Eyre – well, I’ve read worse “heroes” in plenty of ’80s bodice-ripper romances.
Janine: Jane was certainly the most admirable of the four characters. I’ll confess that Heathcliff, horrible human being though he is, is my favorite of them. And ha, I’ve read heroes worse even than him in 1980s romances—some of those books were really traumatizing. Knowing what Rochester was keeping from Jane as I went into Jane Eyre made Rochester intolerable to read about, and that’s leaving out an analysis of the politics (of not just gender and possibly race but also mental illness). I hated him with the fire of a thousand suns.
I agree that Heathcliff and Catherine bringing their unhappiness on themselves wasn’t the point. I don’t even entirely agree they brought it on themselves. To me the point was the intensity and tenacity of their love. Nothing could end it—not the difference in their stations, not Catherine’s marriage, not that Heathcliff was despised by Catherine’s brother Hindley, not that he was constantly abused as a child, and not that their world was inimical to it. Not even death killed it—they were together as ghosts, their feelings for each other haunting everything.
Their love towered over everything, including goodness and virtue. They weren’t meant to be likable or admirable, they were meant to be obsessed, unbiddable, beyond destruction. They insisted on their love surviving everything and would not obey their world’s rules, or even the laws of nature, if overriding them was what it took. If they’d been likable or approachable, Wuthering Heights would be a lesser book.
Jennie: Back to What Souls Are Made Of:
First comes a boy from nowhere. That’s how it goes wrong.
The story is divided into chapters narrated by Heathcliff and Cathy in turn. It begins, more or less, with Heathcliff’s flight from Wuthering Heights, after he overhears Cathy tell the maid Nelly that he, Heathcliff, is too low for her to marry. He returns to Liverpool, where he was born, a place he only hazily remembers. His plan is to acquire wealth and come back to lord it over Cathy and perhaps more importantly, Cathy’s brother Hindley, who viciously mistreated Heathcliff after Mr. Earnshaw died.
Janine: The book opens where (in the original) Heathcliff’s missing years begin. Not only was it a point of entry into a new vision of this story because we don’t know what happened then, but a time when Heathcliff is on his own (and has to come face to face with who and what he is) is a good place to begin fleshing out his background. The backstory of how he and Cathy first met and grew up together is relayed in brief flashbacks interspersed throughout their narratives.
Jennie: The backstory – Heathcliff, a wild and, it’s implied in both stories, not entirely white child (more on that in a bit) – is brought to Wuthering Heights by Mr. Earnshaw. Mr. Earnshaw found him in Liverpool and brought him home for reasons that are better explained in this story than in the original one (the explanation is in spoiler territory, though). The family – Mr. and Mrs. Earnshaw, Hindley, Cathy and Heathcliff – manage to exist in relative peace for a time, and Heathcliff and Cathy form a seemingly unbreakable bond. Then first Mrs. Earnshaw dies, followed by Mr. Earnshaw. Cathy meets the Lintons of the Grange (called Thrushcross Grange in the original, I believe), and is attracted to their wealth and refined manners. Cathy begins to repent of her wild, “heathen” days of wandering the moors with Heathcliff.
She also begins to consider her future, and she sees one with Edgar Linton, heir to the Grange and certified gentleman. Heathcliff, beset by the loss of Cathy and by Hindley’s cruelty, rather understandably begins to harden somewhat. When he hears her declare that there is no hope of a future romantic relationship, it’s too much and he leaves, betrayed and bereft. Cathy tries to go after him but ends up falling ill with one of those 19th-century literature “oh, no, I went out in the rain and now I might die” maladies. By the time she recovers, Heathcliff is long gone; Hindley resists Cathy’s attempts to try to find him.
The story continues with Heathcliff making his way through the brutal, poverty-filled world of lower-class Liverpool, while Cathy tries to make herself love Edgar Linton. She is also reckoning with some metaphorical (and possibly literal) ghosts that are tied to a secret about her childhood. Hindley knows the secret and in part it’s what makes him so vicious and unstable.
Early on I found myself in the same position I’d been in while reading Wuthering Heights – I didn’t like these people, and I couldn’t relate to them. Both Heathcliff and Cathy are convinced that they aren’t good people, and at times the belief seems to be their excuse not to act like good people. I thought Cathy was shallow for choosing the comfort of the Grange over life with her obvious true love, Heathcliff. Heathcliff was too angry for me; I acknowledged that he had a reason to be angry, but that wasn’t enough to make me very sympathetic to him.
Janine: I didn’t read their belief that they weren’t good as their excuse to behave that way. They were angry and at times even cruel because their lives were near-unbearable and because they were shaped by their environment (violence, physical and emotional, was a constant they couldn’t escape). I saw their convictions that they weren’t good as part of a refusal to apologize for not fitting a mold they couldn’t have fit anyhow and that was used against them. And it was also part of the story they told themselves—one that had been (literally) beaten into them. Their image of themselves was as unloving as the world around them was.
As for Heathcliff and Catherine as individuals, giving us her Heathcliff’s POV enables Suri to show internal vulnerability. I found him softer than the original Heathcliff, which is only to be expected in the hero of a YA novel and in a book that takes place in a period before Bronte’s Heathcliff’s adulthood and before he is at his most powerful and destructive. I couldn’t connect Suri’s Heathcliff entirely to Bronte’s; he wasn’t angry enough for that. So I didn’t love him the same way (for me the corrosive anger in Wuthering Heights is a feature, not a bug—righteous in its origins, inevitable, and vital to Heathcliff’s emotional survival), but I did like him. Also, he was a teenager. It’s hard for me not to care about a sixteen-year-old trying to figure out how to survive and feed himself on an unfamiliar city’s streets.
Jennie: That is such a good point about how telling part of the story through Heathcliff’s perspective makes him more vulnerable (and thus to me, understandable).
Janine: I don’t know about Cathy being shallow but she was certainly spoiled (relative to Heathcliff) and willful to begin with. This felt feminist to me, though, and subversive—that the heroine (because in this version of the story the characters are heroes rather than antiheroes) could be those things. That she didn’t have to be lovable to be worthy of being at the center of a story read like it might be a tacit but deliberate statement. I didn’t like her choice of the Grange either, but at the same time I felt her choices were very limited. If she and Heathcliff had run off together, Hindley would have come after them with his rifle and if he’d caught them, Heathcliff’s life wouldn’t have been worth anything. Society wouldn’t have been on their side in such a confrontation, either.
Jennie: The story took a turn for me maybe about halfway through, and it was for a reason that may have something to do with the difference between 19th century classic British novels and 21st century YA novels. Or it may have to do with the choices Suri consciously made that made What Souls Are Made Of different from Wuthering Heights.
I began to understand Cathy and why she wanted the security of the Grange – she had an inherent sense of insecurity caused by the Big Secret (a secret she both does not know and does, on some level), as well as by the strain of living with the violent, unpredictable Hindley.
I began to understand Heathcliff, whose whole life was an exercise in being the alien, the outsider, the unwanted and reviled. It drove home how Cathy’s renunciation of him would of course be devastating.
Janine: If you didn’t understand these things about Heathcliff when you read Wuthering Heights then I can totally understand why that book didn’t work for you. They are the keys to his character.
Jennie: I feel like I understood them intellectually but didn’t feel them? I think the 19th century prose probably contributed to my finding parts of Heathcliff’s character inaccesible.
Jennie: Race plays a big part in What Souls Are Made Of; in Wuthering Heights there were references to Heathcliff’s “gypsy” appearance – and a supposedly corresponding character of fierceness and wildness – but Google tells me that he’s also referred to at least once as a “little lascar.” I was unfamiliar with that word, but it comes up regularly in this book; it’s a 19th century British term for an Indian sailor. Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Earnshaw was a merchant in India for some time.
Janine: There have been theories over the years about Heathcliff’s background—whether he was Black, South Asian, or indeed Rom, and whether he was the mixed-race illegitimate son of Catherine’s father. Suri is clearly engaging in a conversation with the original novel about these topics (though thankfully there is no incest here). In contrast to Wuthering Heights, the point of What Souls Are Made Of isn’t indestructible emotion but rather the importance of identity.
Jennie: Heathcliff encounters people of many different backgrounds once he arrives in Liverpool – for once he’s not the only one who isn’t white. But, of course, his lack of whiteness is still a strike against him. Still, he manages to find and make some friends, and having someone other than Cathy in his life who cares for him gives him the opportunity to consider a different way of thinking and living.
Janine: I think that being in a city where there were people of similar backgrounds was an important factor in that. I liked that Suri explored these ideas—inclusivity, identity, diversity—so thoroughly, but I never felt that she was getting on a soapbox.
Jennie: Agreed – it was very organic.
As a reader I tend to put prose first (characterization second and plot third, though I feel like good prose is the essential building block of strong characterization, anyway). I mostly liked the prose in What Souls Are Made Of, but at times there was a little too much introspection from both Cathy and Heathcliff about their respective natures and about their souls being as one. I guess it makes sense given that they are teenagers, but it palled a bit at times.
Janine: The prose was different from the language in Suri’s fantasy novels, which is more vivid and lyrical IMO. I think that’s an outgrowth of this one being written in first person (Heathcliff’s narration even addresses Cathy in second person). It has to sound like something a person would say. But I missed Suri’s third-person voice.
Suri did an excellent voice of distinguishing Cathy’s voice from Heathcliff’s, though. His sentences were shorter, more staccato, often sentence fragments, and his focus was on the real. Cathy’s sentences were longer and she was more fanciful. Some of the imagery with which she expressed herself was folkloric and/or supernatural.
The “we’re one person” sentiment didn’t bother me—wasn’t it in Wuthering Heights also? I read it as an homage. But I do feel that the book was maybe a little too heavy on introspection generally.
Jennie: I believe the “one person/soul” thing originates in Wuthering Heights, yes.
There are other times when the introspection was rather lovely, as when Cathy muses about her “love” for Edgar Linton (in comparison to her love for Heathcliff, of course):
…sometimes I think how I feel about him – this sweet, airy thing – is no more than plain liking, or something I have brewed up, like a bitter tonic I have to drink for my health. My love is a thing that will fade and drift over time. It’s so flimsy.
Janine: Yes, that was beautiful. Another point in favor of the language (and the book more generally) is that I didn’t notice anachronisms.
How did you feel about the pacing, Jennie? For me the book was a little slow. Heathcliff’s chapters absorbed me more than Catherine’s.
Jennie: It felt meandering about one-third of the way in. But I was somewhat absorbed because honestly I did not know how dark it might go – there was some tension for me about how closely it would follow the original.
Janine: Yes. I wanted to describe the plot better (there’s creativity as well as thoughtfulness in it and I have more thoughts than that) but the less said about it the better, because of spoilers.
Jennie: As a non-fan of Wuthering Heights, What Souls Are Made Of actually made me like Cathy and Heathcliff. For that reason, it deserves a B+.
Janine: You know, I don’t measure whether a book is good or not by whether the characters are likeable (sometimes I even prefer them unlikable). And yet, in this book I enjoyed the fact that they were.
What Souls are Made Of wasn’t, and couldn’t be (by the nature of what it aims for), the kind of larger-than-life story the source material is, but ultimately it has to be judged on its own merits, as a 2022 YA historical that is also in conversation with and an homage to a literary classic. And on that basis, it’s a very good book. B+ for me.
PS to readers: If you’re curious about whether Suri gives Heathcliffe and Cathy a happier ending: