Review: Within These Wicked Walls by Lauren Blackwood

by Daniela Z. Montes

Within These Wicked Walls, by Lauren Blackwood, is an Ethiopian retelling of Jane Eyre. The classic may be the inspiration, but Blackwood takes the bones and runs.

We first meet the protagonist, Andromeda, in a carriage crossing the desert. The driver drops her off far away from her destination, but it is the closest he will get to the mansion owned by Magnus Rochester, who is cursed by the evil eye. Just as people in the real world ward offthe evil eye by wearing jewelry with the eye on it, debteras in Within These Wicked Walls wear them, make amulets, and work with the church to help people protect themselves against it.

In the novel, the evil eye makes itself known through manifestations. Blackwood uses the manifestations and the desert to enhance both setting and atmosphere. The desert is unyielding with its soaring temperatures that could kill. By contrast, the manor is a subversion of home, a world of its own with its own rules. Home is supposed to be warm and welcoming, a place to rest, but the manor is ice cold, so all its inhabitants wear wool and the fireplaces are lit in the most used rooms. The library is host to a menacing ghost who threatens guests with book quotes underlined in blood. The ghost in the library is one way Blackwood incorporates Rochester’s wife, handling the relationship in a way that is much more sensitive to mental health than Brontë did in Jane Eyre. The house creates an atmosphere that keeps the reader on edge, because we don’t know all of the evils that linger within, nor if Andromeda’s skills are enough to thwart them.

There are only three servants left when Andromeda moves in, and they are also the only white people the reader knows by name. The rest of the staff has disappeared due to the evil eye. Believing the amulets are a sign of paganism, the servants do not wear them despite experiencing the evil firsthand. The staff looks down on the local religion, which is why they do not wear amulets. They hide their racism and mistrust with piousness. They don’t feel the need to integrate themselves into the place where they live because that’s seen as something only people of color do while also keeping their countries accessible to white foreigners. They are also the only people willing to work in these conditions. Even in this fictional place, capitalism and piousness reign supreme to these white people. Despite the dangers they face, no one tries to convince them to wear amulets. There is no speech from Andromeda. She finds it odd and ill-advised, but she lets them believe what they do. Why? Because it is not her job to educate them, to try to change their mind. Why would her words change their mind when fear of disappearance, or worse, doesn’t? Blackwood shows us what happens when people other themselves and don’t bother to learn or respect another culture.

Andromeda’s character has classic heroine attributes. Her faith, her optimism, and the relationships she carefully crafts, like the amulets she wears, are her safe spaces. They’re her way out of a situation where her only way to continue her career is through a patronage in a house so cursed she often doesn’t know what to do. Her point of view is what keeps the reader hopeful. Her faith in Jember, her father and mentor, is why she turns to him. No, Andromeda isn’t disillusioned by her optimism. Blackwood makes sure the abuse Andromeda faces isn’t erased because of necessity. Blackwood’s use of first-person point of view is crucial here.

Knowing Andromeda’s thoughts and feelings so closely is the only way the reader can fully understand her relationship with Jember. This plot point mirrors the relationship many young adults have with their parents, the struggle of realizing their parents are human, that sometimes they do awful things, and that as adults they have the power to decide whether they love them or not, whether to forgive them or not. They have to decide how the relationship is going to exist now that they’re adults. This emotional complexity is another way the story is modernized. We see Andromeda’s agency in a way Jane couldn’t express. Jane is a product of her time just like Andromeda is a product of hers. Blackwood refuses to romanticize abuse, but she doesn’t erase it. A modern story doesn’t mean abuse won’t take place, but it does mean the characters will react in a different way—in this case, a healthier way, one that leads to character growth. In classic literature, love conquers all, and it is true here too, with a twist.

Lauren Blackwood took familiar plot points and made them her own. She took us into the desert, showed us the horrors of the evil eye and created a captivating tale that stands on its own, unhindered by the original. While Jane Eyre might bring lovers of gothic fiction to the book, they will stay for the story Blackwood has weaved.