Me and Henry James set off on a bad foot when I read ‘the American’, possibly one of the most boring books I’ve ever read. Ever since then, the name Henry James hasn’t really filled me with confidence. However, I actually sort of enjoyed this book. Sort of.
The novel begins with an anonymous narrator, who recalls one Christmas Eve spent telling ghost stories around a fire in an old country manor. A guest in attendance named Douglas introduces his ghost story, that involves his sister’s governess who he was in love with. This governess, who was ten years his senior, left him a manuscript when she died, relating all the events that happened while she was in charge of two children, Flora and Miles.
The novel switches form to the governess’s manuscript. It begins with her first day at Bly, the country home where she has been sent for to look after Flora and Miles. She thinks the children to be the most beautiful things she has ever laid eyes on. She soon receives a letter from Miles’s headmaster, claiming that he shall not be returning to school, however the letter does not state what Miles has done that deserves expulsion. After a few days of living at Bly, the governess sees a strange figure standing in the tower of the manor house. She sees him again, staring in at her from a window, but when she investigates, the man has vanished. This is when things begin to turn strange.
As much as I found I could not put down this novel, I found myself zoning out, still reading the words but not necessarily taking them in. James has a strange way of relating events, and, rather than using dialogue or descriptions, he uses stream of consciousness. I also disliked his long, drawn out sentence structures, which led me to be confused as to what was going on:
“Well, this matter of mine, think what you will of it, lasted while I caught at a dozen possibilities, none of which made a difference for the better, that I could see, in there having been in the house – and for how long, above all? – a person of whom I was in ignorance.”
Does this sentence really have to be this long and complex? I found myself having to reread sentences, taking out the clauses, for example, I read the above sentence again as:
“Well, this matter of mine lasted while I caught at a dozen possibilities in there having been in the house a person of whom I was in ignorance.”
Much easier to understand and to read, in my opinion. Although the book was only ninety-four pages, it took me two days to read because of the way I had to organise the sentences better in my head. I think, vaguely remembering back to when I read ‘The American’, I disliked it for this same reason.
Henry James is known for this book. Written in 1897, it could come under the same sort of genre as Dracula and Frankenstein, which were also published in 1897 and 1899. The Victorians were obsessed with the idea of the afterlife, and whether humans have souls or not. Although James is not English, the Americans also had similar fears of ghosts and ghouls, proved in his novel.
Overall rating: 3/5
Next review: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.