I had always heard great things about Vera Nazarian’s books, both from friends and publications, but I never quite got around to reading any of her work until recently when I picked up her short story collection Salt of the Air, published by Prime Books. The introduction was by Gene Wolfe, a man I have an enormous amount of respect for as a writer. After reading the wonderful things that Gene had to say about her, I knew I was in for a treat, and I was not wrong. The sublime opening story “Rossia Moya,” about an old woman returning to the Russia she emigrated from when she was younger to see it for the last time before it closes to the outside world, is the perfect introduction. Following it are other great short stories: a cautionary tale in the form of beauty and the beast, the wonderfully imaginative “The Young Woman in the House of Old,” and many more, including my favourite, the Nebula Award nominated “The Story of Love.” Following that, I managed to pick up The Clock King and the Queen of the Hourglass on a three for two sale over at PS Publishing, and also enjoyed that thoroughly.
The reason that I preface the review with all of that superfluous information is because when Mansfield Park and Mummies arrived I was not sure I would like it. Mash-ups seem to be the current literary trend at the moment, and while I hadn’t read any of the others, I had seen the less than complimentary reviews. Despite my prior knowledge of Nazarian’s talent as a writer, I was a little wary; it was still Jane Austen after all. With my childhood spent wanting to be Elric of Melnibone, or pretending to be Steerpike in the kitchen, ladies in society and romance had always been as far from my mind as possible, and at school I had always managed to avoid Austen by choosing some other novel or a Shakespeare play instead. Not that I had any doubts as to the worth of Jane Austen’s work, it just wasn’t my cup of tea. However, one must always try to step outside safe boundaries, so armed with the knowledge there would at least be some mummies I took the plunge and started reading.
I have to admit I was pleasantly surprised. The prose is seamless, and if it wasn’t for the references to Egyptology or the supernatural it would be almost impossible to tell where Austen ends and Nazarian begins. What’s more, the choices in terms of supernatural elements she adds are used in a logical fashion. The mummies of the title are brought about by the Lady Bertram, and are used to explain why she is always so distracted and vague. Lycanthropy is used to good effect to make Mrs Norris even less likable than she already is, and it also serves to make Mr Rushworth less desirable as a suitor to Maria Bertram. I did flinch a bit at the change to Mary Crawford making her a V-word (that is vampire for the dirtier minded of you), because true to their undead nature they just won’t seem to die at the moment. It is treated with great care though, never overdone, and it only serves to make her seduction of poor Edmund even more dangerous.
Nazarian’s alterations are also genuinely funny when she wants them to be. She uses comic timing to perforate some of the book’s more serious conversations with almost slapstick comedy in the background, such as Mr Rushworth chasing and devouring a squirrel, or with an appearance by the dreaded Brighton duck. The mummies are also funny, usually to be found banging into walls or preying on some helpless startled maid, keeping her from her duties and getting her into trouble. There are also a series of increasingly humourous footnotes chastising us for having dirty thoughts when misinterpreting Austen’s use of words for their more colloquial modern meanings, imploring us to be sensible or she’ll be forced to report us to the moral authorities.
The real strength of the novel to me though was the way that Nazarian writes Fanny. One of her main strengths as a writer is her ability to create believable strong female characters, and she does a great job with Fanny. In the original Mansfield Park she is a character who received a lot of criticism for representing out of date Regency morals, and being rather unlikable because of it. Nazarian takes that strong moral sense, and marries it to a no-nonsense attitude towards the supernatural. As she becomes surer of herself and her place at Mansfield Park, she also begins to fight off the mummy infestation and stand up to Mary Crawford, knowing what she is.
When I finished reading Mansfield Park and Mummies I was a little agitated, because I realised something insidious had occurred. With a little common sense and some mental arithmetic, I could remove Nazarian’s additions and be left with just Mansfield Park. I had been tricked into reading Jane Austen, and I had enjoyed it. The novel is utterly charming, and while it is quite different to her original stories, it still retains a strong sense of her own work, despite the emulation of Austen’s style. She is currently working on a second Austen mash-up novel, Northanger Abbey and Angels and Dragons, which I personally feel lends itself even more to this type of thing. She has also put the first three chapters of the book up as a preview. Recommended to everyone, especially to people who don’t really think Jane Austen is their sort of thing; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
FanLit thanks Paul Charles Smith from Empty Your Heart of Its Mortal Dream for contributing this guest review.