Saturday, September 05, 2009

book review - The Turn of the Screw - Henry James

"If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?"

The first comment that is unavoidable when describing the experience of reading Henry James is the language. On telling a book loving colleague about my pleasure at getting the paperback free with The Times he commented that he had always found it impossible to get on with James.

It is funny how one comment, it hardly takes anything at all, will stick in your mind and influence your experience of how you approach a book. So it was with no surprise that the construction of the language was an obstacle.

but, and it's a but worth sticking with, underneath there is a good little ghost story waiting to be discovered. As a bunch of friends sit round the fire side enjoying a ghost story or two one of their number promises to top it all with an account from a governess of her time looking after two children in a remote and bleak country house.

The children seem to be as good as gold but there is something odd about them. Miles the boy has been expelled from school yet he appears to be an angel. The little girl also appears to be keeping secrets. Then strange things start happening and the old man servant Quint appears and then the former governess Miss Jessel.

The governess is convinced that the children are somehow connected with the appearance of the ghosts and goes out of her way to prove it. She is believed and supported by the house keeper who seems to go along with it. Her willingness to agree with what could sound like a proprosterous idea indicates that the children are a problem and have been for a while.

More sightings of Quint and Jessel are seen and the governess seems convinced that they mean to do the children harm. She brings things to a head. But she fails to understand the depth to which the children and the spirits have become intertwined and by breaking that bond she breaks their life.

get past the language and the stilted way the characters express themselves and it is possible to feel the fear that Jame's first readers must have felt in the scenes where the governess sees the ghosts and the climatic moment when Quint is perring through the window.

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