Reader, I married him. And so D M Thomas begins to rewrite one of the most unsatisfactory parts of Jane Eyre: the ending. I am clearly not the only person irritated by the cosy domesticity of the original version. Jane Eyre maintains that "we were born to strive and to endure", but then leaves all that to St John Rivers and settles down with the mutilated Rochester in a damp house. Happily married endings always sound smug and contrived. Thomas invents a darker resolution and a stranger history behind the fissures in the text. He interweaves Charlotte Bronte's writing and his own with fearless panache. Just as well that it is all out of copyright. The wedding night is cautiously described. Rochester, I'm afraid, is sporting a limp member, and Jane's subsequent desperate confession to Mrs Ashford (aka Mrs Temple) reveals that he is impotent. He then falls off his horse and breaks his neck. Jane goes in search of the truth about her husband and finds Grace Poole, the drunken nurse of Rochester's mad first wife. The two women discover that Rochester had a son who still lives in the West Indies. They set off for Martinique.
At this point, the reader comes up against the image of a delightful black bottom confronting an even more delightful pair of naked breasts and a G-string, which punctuate the text. We are in for some provocative sex. The postmodern tale within a tale about a tale proliferates. An academic, Miranda Stevenson, who is on the island of Martinique attending a women writer's conference, is, in fact, writing the novel. Like a contemporary female Rochester, she gets stuck into the local talent. Charlotte is an unstable identity, which slides across the surface of the text. The manuscript is supposedly based on Bronte's discarded, darker ending to Jane Eyre. Miranda Stevenson adopts the name as an alias. The disguise enables her to take her lovers as she pleases: a beach waiter, a cane cutter, a shy queer trying out white women for the first time. The said shy queer, now in full make-up and earrings, also calls himself Charlotte, as an act of appropriation of the heroine's sex. Thomas easily slips in and out of Bronte's idiom. He, too, is "Charlotte".
The book is uneven. There are odd outbursts of fanatical rant that don't sound like Miranda or any of her aliases, but like Thomas himself, fed up to the back teeth with some odious aspect of the modern world. Miranda's curmudgeonly father, another ageing Rochester, who watches her dress up in her dead mother's clothes, appears as a sinister Oedipal presence in the last part of the book. The dressing-up is suggestive. There are some very kinky passages in Jane Eyre where Rochester dresses up as an elderly female gypsy and tells fortunes in the kitchen. There is also an evil moment where he tries to dress Jane up like a prostitute in expensive dresses. Thomas capitalises on the sexual night side of Bronte's novel. It is often effective, but some of the passages are used for shock effect. Miranda's husband won't let the ageing Picasso see his grandchildren because he tickles their genitals at bath time. He is unrepentant. His intrusive erotic relationship with his daughter helps explain her sexual rapacity once she is off the marital leash. Thomas's idea that Rochester made Grace hold Bertha Mason down while he had sex with her sounds all too plausible. But Thomas also appears to suggest that, no matter what is wrong in women's lives, a good screw will set us all to rights. Would that it could.
The test of a book like this is whether you can put it down. I couldn't. I hurtled on, gripped by the simplest desire any reader ever has - I wanted to find out what happened. Oh, and there's one line I wish I'd written: "Reader, I told him to piss off."
Patricia Duncker is the author of Hallucinating Foucault. Her second novel, James Miranda Barry, is published in paperback in July by Picador, £6.99