Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mini-Review: The Turn of the Screw

Since I’d never read anything by Henry James before, I didn’t quite know what to expect when I picked up The Turn of the Screw. Call me clueless, but the last thing I expected was a good old fashioned ghost story- which is essentially what this book is (unless you subscribe to the “insane governess theory.”) It was admittedly an interesting read, but I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this one. I really enjoyed the premise, and the jaw-dropper of an ending gave the book a punch I didn’t think James had in him. But the fact I didn’t love it probably comes down to a question of style.

James’s reputation as a writer certainly precedes him, so I was preparing myself for pantloads of florid prose. And that, as the snippet below illustrates, is something he delivered in spades:

To gaze into the depths of blue of the child’s eyes and pronounce their loveliness a trick of premature cunning was to be guilty of a cynicism in preference to which I naturally preferred to abjure my judgement and, so far as it might be, my agitation.
A little much, right? But my recent immersion in Conrad, Mann and Faulkner had prepped me well for the challenge. No, it wasn’t so much the flowery nature of the writing that doomed this book for me, as the sheer quantity of it. He was too blasted thorough for his own good! James essentially talked all the tension out of a very promising tale that was meant to keep you on the edge of your seat.

I don’t need to know every thought, every impression and every detailed description that passes through the narrator’s brain. And I don’t generally need to know the three or four courses of action she considered before finally opening her mouth to reply to another character. As a reader I felt like I could form no reactions of my own, because everything was already explained for me in excruciating detail.

To sum up: I think beautiful and elaborate language definitely has its place, I just don’t think it served this story as well as a simpler approach might have done. Any James fans out there? Am I completely off base on this one?

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