Havisham by Ronald Frame (Picador, 2013).
Ronald Frame has picked an interesting Dickens character for whom to write a prequel. There are major Dickens characters who have little to no backstory, but then there are major Dickens characters whose backstory is pretty thoroughly filled in for us, and Miss Havisham is one of these. Herbert sketches out her background for Pip shortly after the latter arrives in London. There are some aspects of it he admits to knowing nothing about (such as the details of Estella's adoption), but he gives us a pretty full picture of what he does know about.
So it's not as if we don't know what's going to happen to the woman whom Frame has decided to call Catherine Havisham, when he starts telling us her story. Of course, there are ways for a novelist to deal with this problem. The most obvious is to give us all the story elements we don't already know about -- her childhood and adolescence and so forth -- and to flesh out what we do know about, such as the aborted wedding. This sort of thing can keep us interested even while we know which way things are heading.
Frame does a competent job at this, creating credible new characters and situations, showing us a sharp, intelligent, yet insecure young woman pushing herself to learn and take over her father's business. He's at his best when showing how she puts her trust in people who will ultimately deceive her -- not just Compeyson, but in others as well. (The Great Expectations fan who reads Havisham carefully will spot one of these future betrayers long before Catherine herself does.)
But there's another technique that Frame uses that doesn't work quite as well. This entails Miss Havisham informing us that she suspects Pip is writing a book, and that she suspects he's rewriting the details of their association, and proceeding to set the record straight for us. This gives Frame the freedom to ditch certain things that happen in Great Expectations and come up with his own version of those events. Frame has also taken some liberties with the ending, and with the general mood of the story. The atmosphere feels gloomier and more pessimistic than that of Great Expectations.
Unfortunately for Frame, all this has the effect of putting him in direct competition with Dickens (at times even rewrting Dickens's dialogue) -- and honestly, that's a competition that nobody could win. I'd say that even if I weren't a rabid Dickens fan. Frame can write a good novel, but Dickens could create a world.
(Review copy obtained from the publisher.)