Review: The Turn of the Screw

the_turn_of_the_screw_coverI struggled through this one. Henry James’ narrative style in The Turn of the Screw is weak and mincing, full of qualifications and tiny details. I had to re-read a few sentences to catch their meaning and some content escaped me. (I hate admitting this sort of thing; I worry it makes me sound dense.)

The Turn of the Screw follows a young governess in charge of a large house and two young children. Two ghostly figures appear and the governess believes they’re interested in the children. Both kids act bizarrely when questioned and the governess suspects they’re being used to some dark end. However, it’s just as likely that the governess is mentally unstable. This ambiguity is nicely balanced throughout the novel and, though I felt I wasn’t following the story to the fullest, the conclusion was shocking and still made an impact.

So about that writing…

Have you seen this yet?

walken comma
James has this:

She was now housekeeper and was also acting for the time as superintendent to the little girl, of whom, without children of her own, she was, by good luck, extremely fond. (Loc 186)

Perfectly clear, but jerky. It was hard for me to find an easy rhythm while reading.

Here’s a better example, which occurs after the governess and housekeeper have a bonding moment after a shared fright:

It took of course more than that particular passage to place us together in presence of what we had now to live with as we could—my dreadful liability to impressions of the order so vividly exemplified, and my companion’s knowledge, henceforth—a knowledge half consternation and half compassion—of that liability. There had been, this evening, after the revelation left me, for an hour, so prostrate—there had been, for either of us, no attendance on any service but a little service of tears and vows, of prayers and promises, a climax to the series of mutual challenges and pledges that had straightaway ensued on our retreating together to the schoolroom and shutting ourselves up there to have everything out. (Loc 644)

The most confusing element of this passage is why “of course” is not offset with commas while everything else is. There’s a genuine creepy mood that develops over the course of the story, but the oblique language prevents the threats from feeling immediate.

I read The Turn of the Screw because most people who commented on The Haunting of Hill House mentioned Jackson’s nods to James in her story, but Jackson’s version is sharper. Her story strikes a similarly ambiguous tone (supernatural haunting vs. unhinged narrator), but because she doesn’t get bogged down in parenthetical remarks and appositives, her book has time for plot points and (arguable) character development.

Overall: 3.0  There are elements that work well, perhaps other readers will find them more easily than I did. It’s easy to see how this story because a classic and it is engaging even if it is a chore to read in places.

Translation: Given that Hill House is the better book, I’d start with The Turn of the Screw if you intend to read both books. I wonder if I would have enjoyed this book more if I didn’t read it so close to Hill House; it doesn’t fare well when compared to Jackson’s more intense, unsettling tale.




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