Monday, 14 May 2012

The Turn of the Screw - Henry James and Florence & Giles - John Harding

I've chosen to review these two books together as they are clearly intertwined, one influencing the other. Basically, if there were no Turn of the Screw, there couldn't be a Florence & Giles. And that would be a tragedy.

I'm sure you've all heard of Turn of the Screw, if you didn't have to read it for school at some point. It's Henry James's most famous work, the tale of a young governess sent to watch over two children in the country who either becomes haunted by spirits or slowly goes insane, your choice. I treated myself to this book a few months ago when visiting a friend who works at Hatchards (a dangerous game to play) and was quite excited to read it. It sounded just up my alley. 

Disappointingly, I could barely get through it. I would have to read another to be sure but I don't think I really like Henry James's style. He is quite concerned with using as many words as he can fit in and generally going on rants where it is quite easy to zone out. While I was reading, I found myself wondering if there was really a plot or if I was just missing details that were somewhere I couldn't decipher. After reading a few articles on the text after finishing, though, (stereotypical academic here), I found that no, I had gotten everything. I just wasn't impressed, I guess.

It is remarkable, telling a story from three distances away and using this distancing effect to play upon the perceptions of the reader. And the idea of a psychological study in that time period of a young governess is a rather good one. I just couldn't really get into it.

Fortunately for me, on a whim, I picked up Florence & Giles and I fell in love.

Florence & Giles is basically Turn of the Screw from the children's point of view. It follows the same basic plot line: Two children, a brother and sister, live in a large estate in the country with their house keeper and a few servants. The first governess sent to them dies in strange circumstances and the second governess is sent later. There may or may not be ghostly things going on in the background. Heck, even the main characters' names (Florence and Giles) are reworkings of the children's name from Screw (Flora and Miles.)

The difference in this novel is the protagonist; instead of following the governess, we get first person point of view from Florence, the big sister of the pair. A young girl that has been teaching herself to read from the library in secret, her narrative style is lovely as she enjoys 'shakespeare-ing' words, or just making up words to suit her own purpose. It adds a delightful narrative voice to the novel, as well as establishing an untrustworthy narrator. 

The plot, while largely the same as Turn of the Screw, makes detours as in this case, it is the governess who is potentially evil and the children who have to look out for themselves. Florence is the one who starts seeing eerie things and causes us to question what she's telling us. In fact, one thing I love about the novel is that it never flat out tells you anything. All of it is in little hints and throwaway lines. You have to construct the plot from the bits that Florence gives you.

I could not put Florence & Giles down and raced through it. It really keeps you questioning until the last page. The morality and logic that Florence comes up with and the narrative voice that you get wrapped up in is pitch perfect. I adored this book.

And that is why I have to say a big thank you to The Turn of the Screw. Because, despite the fact that I never could really get into you, it's thanks to you that we have Florence & Giles. And that's a thing to be glad about.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, only just seen this. Thanks for a terrific review! Warn wishes

    John Harding