Double review: ‘Florence and Giles’ & ‘The Girl Who Couldn’t Read’ by John Harding

florence and gilesFlorence & Giles is narrated by Florence, a 12-year-old girl in the 1890s living with her younger brother Giles. They are orphans, and under the care of an uncle who lives away and doesn’t believe girls should learn to read, so are looked after by the few staff in the old mansion house. When Giles gets a governess, she is quickly killed in an accident. When a second governess arrives, Florence becomes convinced she must save Giles from her, and that she is not altogether human.

If you’ve read The Turn of the Screw, you’ll quickly find parallels, from the names (Flora & Miles / Florence and Giles, Bly House / Blithe House) to the sense of a slow haunting. But you definitely don’t need to read James to enjoy this.

Florence uses language in a really interesting way. She often uses nouns as verbs and verbs as nouns (saying that Shakespeare often made up his own words for things, so why shouldn’t she?). It makes perfect sense, adds an extra layer of meaning, and leads to really lovely phrases everywhere. My favourite is “I will wasp her picnic”, but even the more every day descriptions are great – “she exasperated a sigh”,”I was too mindfilled to sleep”,
and “Miss Taylor tigered her a smile”. (I do this with ‘pyjama’ all the time, as in ‘I’m not coming out because I’m just going to pyjama all day’).

It’s a book I think would also work well for people who read a lot of YA, as a sort of ‘gateway’ book if you’re looking to get into reading literary fiction as it’s very accessible.

My only problem was actually caused by the cover quotes, namely the ones that said something along the lines of ‘genuinely shocking’. The book is extremely predictable, but had it not been for all the ‘shocking’ reviews I would have thought it was supposed to be – that the creeping feeling comes from knowing what’s coming – and enjoyed it for that fact. Calling it ‘shocking’ made me think I wasn’t supposed to know, and made me expect something different. The ending is not a shock, so ignore the cover quotes and enjoy it for the creeping inevitability instead.

the girl who couldn't readThe Girl Who Couldn’t Read is a kind of follow-up to F & G, but would work well as a stand-alone too. Also set in the 1890s, it is narrated by a young doctor, John Shepherd, going to work at a mental hospital for women on a remote island. As it’s the 1890s, the ‘treatments’ are pretty horrific, and, although he is appalled at the treatment of patients, it quickly becomes clear that perhaps Dr Shepherd isn’t quite what he seems, and neither is anyone else. There’s also a young patient with apparent amnesia who speaks ‘gibberish’ by mixing up her nouns and verbs (!).

This is very different in style to F & G and more plot-driven with some twists and turns, but keeping the feeling that things are not going to end well. I really enjoyed the ending – like F & G, it has an excellent sense of dark inevitability. I missed Florence’s voice and her use of language, as that was partly what I really liked in the first book, but it was interesting seeing her through another character’s eyes.

I bloody love a good unreliable, slightly creepy narrator and both of these books do that well in very distinct voices. I also loved all the literary references throughout, particularly to different Shakespeare plays and Jane Eyre in TGWCR. Both F & G and TGWCR are gothic in style and were excellent to read when the weather was wuthering outside. I recommend both as absorbing reads, and, if you didn’t like F & G because of Florence’s narration, definitely still give TGWCR a go.

I am hoping that there’ll be a third book…

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One Response to Double review: ‘Florence and Giles’ & ‘The Girl Who Couldn’t Read’ by John Harding

  1. Pingback: February Reads 2015 | mischief and miscellany

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