Kirsten Tranter has had some interesting publicity with her debut novel, The Legacy (HarperCollins, 2010.) Her intriguing and very readable work has been described as ‘a seductive contemporary literary thriller’, ‘part love story, part psychological thriller’, ‘an entertaining literary thriller’. But anyone expecting the suspense and fast pace of a thriller will be disappointed. The novel does have a mystery at its heart, but that is uncovered very slowly in a leisurely, graceful meditation on friendship, love, scholarship, money and art.
The Legacy has also, rightly, been called ‘a modern reworking of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.’ This is an immense part of its appeal: Tranter has taken the framework of a great nineteenth-century novel and dressed it in vibrant twenty-first century clothes.Isabel Archer becomes Ingrid Holborne, a beautiful and intelligent young woman who is adored by her cousin Ralph and his family, and loved by her friends. Ingrid’s future seems to be one of limitless possibilities, especially when her uncle leaves her a great deal of money in his will. But on a visit to Italy, her friend Maeve introduces her to Gilbert Grey and his daughter Fleur – and all of Ingrid’s bright ‘promise and exceptionality’ is slowly extinguished.
In both novels, Ralph is the family member most affected by his cousin’s unhappy marriage. But in The Legacy he must also cope with Ingrid’s sudden and violent death: she is killed on 9/11 when the World Trade Center is destroyed. Struggling to deal with his grief, Ralph sends his friend Julia over to New York to discover what she can about the last months of Ingrid’s life.
This is where Tranter’s novel breaks away from the original text: Julia’s search for the truth about Ingrid has no parallel in Portrait of a Lady. Her relationship with the dead woman is a complex one; like Ralph, she loved Ingrid but ‘grew tired of being the face that was overlooked whenever I was out with her.’ Ingrid’s legacy to Julia is a difficult one: feelings of inferiority and uncertainty as well as love. The central character portrait in this novel is one of Julia rather than Ingrid, as she struggles with the way in which her friend’s life and death affect and overshadow her own sense of self.
I enjoyed reading The Legacy because of this sensation of reading two stories instead of one: the 19th century back-story of Portrait of a Lady and the very modern events that Tranter depicts. Domestic violence, post – 9/11 New York, gay men and recreational drugs all figure in the 21st century story, as does the mystery of what really happened to Ingrid on September the 11th ( finally – possibly – resolved when a man recognizes her face in a stolen photograph.) At the same time, the careful weaving of matching character traits and literary allusions pull the reader back to James’s text. This double vision in The Legacy is Tranter’s greatest achievement.