This extremely short book is only a novella, but it took me some time to get through it because of the density and obscurity of the prose. James is, I think, notorious for writing long sentences, but that’s only part of it. It’s the textural density, the complexity, and, I think, the wilfully archaic (even for the time) formulations, that make it hard work.
It’s a ghost story, though the status of the ghostly presences is disputed, or at least discussed: are they all in the governess’s mind? The bulk of the tale is the first-person narrative of the governess, but it starts with an odd framing sequence of tales being told round a Christmas-eve fireplace. One of the company is reminded of a manuscript he has, and sends for it. The rest is him ‘reading’ from it. And I’m not sure that ‘framing’ is the right term here, because we never return to the reading party. It seems like a device to let James write from the point of view of a woman.
Once you attune yourself to the style, it’s pretty compelling. Chilling in places.
This was recommended to me by an Open University tutor when I was doing the creative writing course a few years back. Which experience, I note, I barely wrote about here. I have a Diploma in Creative Writing, don’t you know?
Anyway, there was an exercise which included writing a plan for the next major piece we were going to write. I wanted to write something that was set in an exotic city, and I mentioned in my plan that I wanted the city to be a character in the story. I was thinking maybe of something like China Mièville’s Bas-Lag.
My tutor suggested that the shopping centre in this book might be a similar kind of thing. Which turns out not really to be accurate. It’s set largely in and around the mall, and some people say they have a sense of it watching them, but nothing is ever made of that.
It’s strange, in that it starts off apparently being a kids’ book, or at least YA; but after the first part it takes a turn, into something else entirely.
It’s not bad, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend it.