THE BLOG
03/05/2013 10:36 am ET Updated May 05, 2013

Abiding With Emily Brontë

Guantanamo Bay was a strange place to think about love, I'll admit. But it was there, beneath Cuba's astonishing stars, that I conceived a novel, a love story, in the spirit of Emily Brontë's classic, Wuthering Heights.

You might ask what Wuthering Heights has to do with Guantanamo Bay, much less our modern moment.

I began asking that question at the base, where I used to go as a lawyer. Our clients were captured in error in the fog of war, and then became political pawns in Congress and the courts (as many prisoners remain today). During long hot days I would visit them in the prison --"Detention Facility" was the euphemism -- and during long hot nights, I sat outside the "Combined Bachelors' Quarters" across the bay, thinking about what I'd seen and felt.

There were two uniforms at Guantanamo: the smocks of the Muslim prisoners, and the camo of the American MPs and escorts. Each group chafed against the place, and the young Americans were just as keen to get out -- off to somewhere like Iraq, or Afghanistan. I often thought about them at night. Our nation had cast out one class of our youth to wars of choice in Asia, leaving another at home, untouched. What would happen when these two classes, long separated, were rejoined?

I thought as well about the failure, which each day proved, of hatred as a policy. It crushed the clients, it demoralized the guards, it destroyed souls and produced nothing positive. An odd question suggested itself: could love have failed any more utterly than hatred? Suppose the prisoners had gardens; suppose they took courses; suppose that barren place became a laboratory in decency? At night I'd wonder what sort of future our clients would have, and what would happen to these keen young soldiers, if they lived out their dream and made it to the show in Asia -- what would happen when and if they got home?

And so to Brontë. Wuthering Heights is about a return home, an obsession with place and a woman left behind, about lovers fused in spirit but separated by every other barrier. That is what I was after in Abide with Me: love restless and relentless, frustrated by barriers of place and class. For when I imagined the return of the men in each of the Guantanamo uniforms, I did not think it would go well.

Heathcliff is a wild boy, adopted and brought to Yorkshire. His past is never explained. Cathy is the daughter of a landed family, but the daughter, too, of the moor: she breathes its wild spirit. The pair are together in youth and separated in adolescence. When he returns, dangerous and potent, scarred and enriched by years abroad, Cathy has married another from her class. Why she has married doesn't matter -- Bronte cares only for the essential: the forces loosed by the collision of Heathcliff's return.

So my hero Roy became an outcast with an uncertain past. I built a childhood bond between him and Emma, a daughter of privilege, and then wrenched it apart with conventions of class, and with the war. At a firebase in Afghanistan, when a soldier asks about the talisman Emma gave him to wear around his neck, Roy answers, as Heathcliff might have done, "It was in the family." Having set this up, I explored the collisions wrought by Roy's return.

The fabric of Brontë's story is woven from universal thread: a complicated family, an ancient but fallen house, a mysterious lover, a restless setting out, a relentless coming home again, all building to collision. This became the model for Abide with Me.

I have to admit that I had some fun dropping Brontë homages into Abide with Me. Readers will find many I have not mentioned here, but the central homage is thematic: the dangerous magnetism of an obsessive love, and the collisions set off by return. Times change, but the way an obsession leaps across a social boundary, or the Internet, or a span of years is a constant. Obsessive love draws us like a match flame. That fascination is why people still read a novel set in a lonely moor in a far-off time, and it is, in part, why I wrote Abide with Me.

And, peculiar as it sounds, the tragedy of the story still sends me back to the prison base in Cuba, where young men wearing different uniforms dream of home, little imagining how badly things may go, should they ever reach it again.

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