The perfect tale to finish on Halloween for sure, it’s difficult to know where to start this review – Henry James’ writing is difficult at best, and some passages are so convoluted I would have been tempted to skip them had it not been relatively short. Despite the turgid language, James creates some great suspense-ridden scenes and whilst it is more eerie than horrific as a ghost story, it is effective in its ability to disconcert the reader through creepy atmospheres and suggestion.
The story’s ambiguity is really its saving grace as it involves a governess who either heroically attempts to protect the children in her care from malevolent apparitions, or is/becomes dangerously insane. I like the fact that this distinction is uncertain throughout, and James leaves it totally up to the reader to decide how to interpret the events that unfold…
My biggest problem is the extremely abrupt ending – after the slow build up, all the twists and turns of the screw, I was disappointed with how hastily the story ended. None of the numerous loose ends were tied up; an afterword describing what became of the characters (dead or alive) would have been beneficial, or returning to the first setting (a man telling the governess’ woeful account) may have softened the ending.
It’s fair to say that this is a very clever story which stays with you even after the final, somewhat shocking page has been turned, but I’d only enthusiastically recommend it to lovers of 19th century language or classical gothic fiction. Whilst I wouldn’t put someone off reading it, the book is more suited to those who prefer ornate writing with less substance (unlike me).
Three words to describe this novella: dense, mysterious, ambiguous.