The Turn of the Screw – Henry James

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I decided to read The Turn of the Screw after I heard Audrey Niffenegger describe it as her favourite book. Halloween also seemed the perfect time of year to read this classic, spooky story.

The book is set in an Essex country home and describes the life of a governess who is charged with looking after two children. She becomes increasingly disturbed by glimpses of strange ghostly figures and begins to suspect that the children may have something to do with them.

I’m afraid that I don’t share Niffenegger’s passion for this book. I found it very hard to read – the writing style meant it required a great deal of concentration and I had to continually re-read sections to understand exactly what was happening. His overuse of commas meant that the writing had an irritating, jumpy feel to it.

The large impressive room, one of the best in the house, the great state bed, as I almost felt it, the figured full draperies, the long glasses in which for the first time, I could see myself from head to foot, all struck me – like the wonderful appeal of my first small charge – as so many things thrown in.

The complexity of the writing and the fact that the book is written from the viewpoint of a narrator who wasn’t present as events took place meant that I failed to connect with the characters. I was so distanced from events that I didn’t find it remotely scary.

I loved the ambiguity of the plot and in hindsight I can appreciate the cleverness of it, but I much prefer it when modern writers take aspects of this book and re-write them from a modern perspective.

I am really pleased that I read it, but it felt more like a chore than entertainment at the time.


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  1. Simon S says:

    I read this with Novel Insights as one of out Rogue Book group choices and I was sadly a bit let down by it like you. The last page gave me a real chill as did the scene involving the window, but other than that it didnt work for me which is a shame as in theory it should have been a book I loved!

    1. Jackie says:

      Simon, I agree that there was the odd great paragraph, but overall I was quite disappointed with it. On paper it sounds like a great book, but I think it is the language which makes it hard to love. I’m pleased to hear I’m not alone in my opinions.

  2. Beth F says:

    Because I read this book in high school — back in the dark ages — I really don’t remember the details very well, but Henry James was never one of my favorites.

    On the other hand, I don’t remember hating this book.

    1. Jackie says:

      Beth, I don’t hate it and I think I’ll probably struggle to remember the details in a few years time. James isn’t going to get anywhere near my top author list!

  3. Claire says:

    This isn’t a favourite work of mine either but I can recognise its effect on the genre. I don’t have so much of an issue with the style of writing but then I’m used to reading Victorian classics. The only other work by Henry James I have read is another novella, Daisy Miller, which I really liked.

    1. Jackie says:

      Claire, I think this book is much harder to understand than every other Victorian classic I’ve read (not that I’ve read a massive number). I haven’t read anything else by James yet, and I’m sure I will at some point, but my mind needs a little rest now!

  4. Steph says:

    There’s no denying that this is no easy piece of fiction to get into a read, as I also found the language quite impenetrable at times, but ultimately I did like it a good deal. I think I was able to stop worrying about understanding every little world and just grab the gist of some of his more flowery/convoluted sentences, and that certainly helped. But I really liked the story itself, and thought that the central question of whether there is really a haunting or whether the governess has gone crazy is really compelling. Plus there are so many things about the story that are unanswered that I think just make it even more intriguing (like why was the governess not supposed to contact the children’s guardian under any circumstances?). It’s a shame you didn’t like this one more, but at least now you’ll know where the starting point for all these modern ghost stories!

    1. Jackie says:

      Steph, 3.5 stars is a reasonable score from me – I didn’t hate it and I think that as time goes on I will forget how hard it was to read and only remember how clever the plot was. I would love to know why the governess wasn’t supposed to contact the guardian – thinking about those questions makes this book even more enjoyable. Difficult to read, but worth the effort!

  5. Stephanie says:

    I read this book a few years ago so my memory is a bit foggy. I remember enjoying it but it is not one of my favorites.

    1. Jackie says:

      Stephanie, I don’t think this will ever be one of my favourites, but I am really pleased that I read it. I’ll be interested to see how much I’ll remember in a few years time as I feel it won’t be something I forget – the sign of a great book?

  6. Ti says:

    I am reading this now as my book group chose it for December. They chose it mainly because December is our big party and they know we won’t discuss the book much but I am having a hard time getting through it, and it’s so short! I am going to start over as I read about half and it was all gibberish to me.

    1. Jackie says:

      Ti, It is interesting that your book group don’t think you’ll have much to discuss. I can imagine talking about this book for hours! There is so much ambiguity that I could talk about the possibilities with people for a long time – in fact I think this book would make an excellent book group choice.

      I know exactly how you feel about reading it – I struggled too. Try not to worry about understanding every word. Once you get to the end you’ll have a good idea of the plot and perhaps talking about it will improve your knowledge a bit more (or if you really struggle wikipedia has a good summary!) Good luck!

  7. Kathrin says:

    Just a quick update, I have now the full posts again in my reader, but old ones still keep popping up as well.

    Also, I can’t wait to read a review of Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, once you’ve finished it :-)

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathrin, Thanks for letting me know. I’m hoping the feeds are fixed now, but I’ll have to wait until my next post to be sure.

      I am really enjoying Norwegian Wood so far. It hasn’t got the weirdness of his other books, but is packed with the emotion I love – there is still plenty of time for it all change though!

      1. Kathrin says:

        Jackie, you’re welcome. I received a test post which is no longer available here, it seems, without any old blog posts, so things might be fixed now :-)

        I hope you’ll keep enjoying Norwegian Wood, so far it sure seems you do!

        1. Jackie says:

          Kathrin, The test post seemed to work, so I think it is fixed now – I’m so happy!

  8. Kathleen says:

    I’ve not ready The Turn of the Screw and have heard from others that it is a bit of a “ho-hum” read so it probably isn’t top of my list to tackle.

    1. Jackie says:

      Kathleen, It is one of those classics that everyone talks about, so I am pleased I can now join in any conversations, but it is a tough read, so can understand why people wouldn’t want to attempt it.

  9. That’s a pity, the whole “chore more than entertainment” thing. Hate it when books do that.

    I haven’t ever been tempted to seek this one out, and your review seems to justify that.

    1. Jackie says:

      anothercookiecrumbles, yes, it felt more like a study of words rather than reading a good story. I think it is worth reading at some point to see where much modern ghost writing started, but not because it is an entertaining read.

  10. Karen says:

    Henry James is an author I have always struggled with (left over thoughts and feelings from uni study partially responsible I think!) and it sounds like this book might only add to my struggles!

    1. Jackie says:

      Karen, I can see why this book might bring back memories of uni – it is probably the best place for it!

  11. Sandy says:

    Bummer. This book is bigger than life on the blogs, and always gets such huge “publicity” as THE scary book to read. Even though I have not read this book, I’m pretty sure I know what you are talking about. It seems that some of the older classics are written in the same style. I swear I am not ADHD, but it isn’t always easy to concentrate around here. If it requires too much, I’m sunk.

    1. Jackie says:

      Sandy, Yes, this does require a lot of concentration – one to read after the kids have gone to bed! I was hoping it would be scary, and I’m sure it was on publication, but it took so much concentration that there wasn’t the chance for any tension to be built up.

  12. diane says:

    It’s good to see your feed fixed (at least it appears to be today)?

    1. Jackie says:

      diane, I really hope that it is – fingers crossed it works today!

  13. Louise says:

    This one is easy for me, since I haven’t read it. I rarely read books older than a 100 years, and an 1800’s book (in Danish or English) would not really appeal to me. That said, I wouldn’t outrule the possibilty of me reading an old book some day.

    1. Jackie says:

      Louise, There are a lot of great books which are older than 100 years – I really think you should give one a try soon, but this probably isn’t a good place to start!

  14. Trevor says:

    Oh no, Jackie! I love this story. To me it worked on so many levels: a chilling story that may be about a possessed child or a chilling story about a homicidal/insane governess. And then there are all the maybes in the story, like what happened at Miles’s school? Is he, at such a young age, homosexual? Or was it something so different. Nothing is answered and yet every question has so many possible answers. Strange how books work and don’t work for people, isn’t it?

    1. Jackie says:

      Trevor, I do think it is an amazing story and it does improve with hindsight, but the effort of reading it was too much.

      I love the ambiguity and the number of unanswered questions and am very pleased that I read it, but it isn’t one of my favourites.

  15. Michelle says:

    First, yay. It looks as though you’ve fixed your feed problem!

    Also, I tried reading The Turn of the Screw about a year ago. I thought ‘it’s pretty slim, I’ll sail right through this one’ and instead I slogged through maybe half of it before I gave up. Well done to you for making it through!

    1. Jackie says:

      Michelle, Yes – I think the feed problem is fixed now!

      It is funny how it is the thin books that often cause the most problems!

  16. S. Krishna says:

    I want to read this, though I’m a but more hesitant after reading your review! I need to go in without ridiculously high expectations.

    1. Jackie says:

      S. Krishna, I think you can keep the high expectations, but ensure you take a lot of patience with you too!

  17. Rebecca Reid says:

    I liked it when I read it in college. We watched two different movies that interpreted the ending in the two possible ways and it was fascinating how it changed the whole movie’s tone!

    1. Jackie says:

      Rebecca, I’d be interested to watch those. I might try to find copies.

  18. I can’t remember that I found it hard to read The Turn of the Screw, but of course it would have been a great help that I had seen an opera of it first :) I loved both.

    1. Jackie says:

      Gnoe, Yes – knowing the basic plot would have been a great help! I can’t imagine an opera of this, but then I’m not an opera fan, so I’m probably just ignorant of it’s possibilities.

  19. Amy S says:

    I never liked Henry James either. Maybe only Portrait of a Lady but other than that too dense, too masculine. Of course I read it all 15 years ago.

    1. Jackie says:

      Amy, I think dense is a great word to describe Henry James! The text is so hard to follow in places – it does feel like wading through mud!

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