Review: Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

Edinburgh, 'a city of infinite promise.'

For those of you unaware of the plot of the original Northanger Abbey, written by the great Jane Austen, it is a Gothic parody novel depicting the adventures of Catherine Morland, a young girl with an over-active imagination, and her relationship with a certain Mr Henry Tilney. In her re-imagining of the classic story, Val McDermid moves the action to modern-day Edinburgh during its world famous book festival, a literature lover's dream.

I went into this novel with high expectations, and to be perfectly honest the writing didn't grab me instantly. I found the narrative a little patronising towards Cat, but in hindsight perhaps this is intentional to highlight her naivety. It is more a retelling than a re-imagining as other reviewers have pointed out, with perhaps too much effort made to stick closely to the original plot instead of telling its own story.

That said, moving the setting from Bath to Edinburgh was a genius idea! The characters are all believable, and to an extent relatable - I've never been one for paranormal fiction but I'm frequently told that I have my head in the clouds! The phone text sections annoyed me a bit, but I'm just pedantic about text speak - just ask anyone who doesn't text me in proper English and they'll tell you how annoyed I get. As an avid reader I suppose I expected Cat to be the same way inclined (although I do dog walk for a primary school English teacher and her texts are indecipherable sometimes!)

I liked Henry, hated Johnny and was dubious of Bella; it's made pretty obvious how you're supposed to feel about the characters. Making Cat part of the 'Twihard'  fan base was a very clever move; and I suspect that the recent resurgence of interest in Gothic fiction made this retelling a lot easier than it might otherwise have been. Speaking of characters, I do feel that Edinburgh was vastly underused; the festival was well described but the city has so much more to offer than that, especially to a Gothic fanatic like Cat.

Knowing what to expect took something away from the story, but then that is what you get when you read a retelling, and I purposely didn't refresh my memory of the original plot so that I wasn't constantly comparing, and to leave room for a few surprises.

After a shaky start I found that I enjoyed this book in the end, even if the reasoning for Cat being thrown out of the Abbey - and Henry's believing it - was ridiculous.

4/5 stars: Not quite what I was expecting, but nevertheless an inspired re-imagining of the Austen Gothic parody.


  1. I know what you mean about Edinburgh being under-used but I think that using the ceilidh etc worked well for bringing the whole 'dance etiquette' into the 21st century. I really didn't expect to like Val McDermid's version of this at all but it was just good fun. I agree that it worked best when you didn't think too much about the conclusion - or indeed why the qualified lawyer (so presumably mid to late 20s) Henry was pursuing a 17 year-old girl in the first place. I definitely liked it better than Trollope's Sense and Sensibility!

    1. You're right there, I'm reading Sense and Sensibility now and it's not translating well at all! I agree about the ceilidh, really liked that idea actually. Hadn't thought about the age difference though haha, yeah that is a little odd!

  2. Thanks for the heads-up. I like Val McDermid, but maybe this is one I'll skip.


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