Review by Ren Zelen
Turning the Screw….
Florence & Giles is an intriguing Gothic tale, well thought-out and deftly plotted. It owes much of its inspiration to Henry James’s ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and is a tribute to that classic story of misguided and obsessive madness.
Set in remote and crumbling New England mansion, twelve-year-old orphan Florence is neglected by her guardian uncle and banned from any formal education as her absent uncle has strong opinions on the dangers of a clever woman. Ignored by the minimal staff of the house and left to her own devices, she finds the abandoned library, teaches herself to read and devours books in secret – she appears a resourceful and intelligent young heroine. Keeping her self-taught accomplishments a secret from all, she considers them her own personal triumph, seeing herself as literary and articulate against all the odds. She insists on narrating her own story in a language of her own invention. This contrived language is a little awkward to get used to. Her insistence on turning nouns and adjectives to verbs and verbs to nouns “no budgery was to be had. I was in a weepery of frustration” – can rather grate and irritate at first, but once the reader gets used to its idiosyncrasies, it ceases to slow up the pace of the story. One cannot help but admire Florence for her intellectual hunger and self-determination but, as becomes apparent, Florence is a girl grown headstrong in her own opinions, particularly as she has no-one to contradict her or curb her overactive imagination.
Highly observant and imaginative, she is prone to sleepwalking and is troubled by a recurrent dream in which a mysterious woman appears to enter the room of her younger, half-brother Giles, and gloat over him. After the sudden, unexpected and violent death of the children’s first governess, a second teacher, Miss Taylor, arrives, and immediately strange phenomena begin to occur. Florence becomes convinced that the new governess is the woman in her dreams – the vengeful and malevolent spirit of her dead governess who means to harm her half-brother Giles, to whom Florence is strongly attached. Against this apparent supernatural enemy, and without any adult to whom she can turn for help, Florence must use all her ingenuity to protect her little brother and preserve the world she has created for them both.
John Harding has created a novel of real atmosphere and suspense, chock full of gothic motifs: secret towers, shadowy corridors, overgrown gardens, swishing black dresses and ghostly faces in mirrors. True to the Henry James story, Harding maintains the mystery of his small cast of dramatis personae, confining them in a narrow world where soon what is real and what is imagined becomes blurred and indistinct. Led into Florence’s isolated world by her own words, it is left to the reader to try to deduce what to believe – what is true and what is fantasy in this increasingly fevered and stifling atmosphere. To Harding’s credit, he has left enough clues so that as a reader, one can guess the identity of the replacement governess fairly early on, but this realisation actually serves to ramp up the tension regarding the events of the story and its shocking climax.
Florence and Giles reads like a satisfying Gothic chiller, and even when the story arc lags a little it is still a fascinating study of perversity and self-delusion exacerbated by isolation and loneliness. This is well thought-out, slowly ‘turning the screws’ of tension and uncertainty, and I would recommend it to any lover of a good Gothic yarn.
The only questionable aspect I found regarding the tale, was that once the events had unfolded to their inevitable climax – I was left wondering whether Florence’s uncle’s misogynistic point of view, had, in this case, been, in fact, a terrible prediction.
Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2012 All rights reserved.