on 31 December 2012
As a lover of Henry James and especially his supernatural material, I thought I would love this, but I found the structure, which alternates between the present and the past, confusing. It is also not clear whether (the present) narrator is reliable which is a device from which The Turn of the Screw benefits but which I just found annoying in this instance (assuming it was intentional). The plus point - and why I have given this three stars - is that it brought to my attention for the first time the unfinished James story The Beautiful Child, the brilliant first 16 pages of which are reproduced here. Unfortunately by comparison it made the rest of the book seem even less well crafted.
I'm not sure I fully understood this ghost tale about Henry James, set mainly at Lamb House, Rye, in Sussex. The confusion may, of course, be intentional, as is the way with clever ghost stories, but I somehow doubt it; or, of course, I may be guilty of lazy reading, missing subtle clues that would have clarified things. Given that Emma Tennant is a wonderfully inventive and literary novelist of great experience (I've read a few others of hers), perhaps I should give her the benefit of the doubt and say to myself: a second reading might be in order to clear up your doubts and confusions. But I shouldn't be left feeling like this, surely: after all, the essence of ghost stories is to entertain, and to do so at a visceral level, not to leave one feeling puzzled.
The confusion partly arises from the fact that this short novel is told in many different voices. Characters from the present morph strangely into servants and secretaries at Lamb House during the early part of the 20th century and back again. They also step into a haunted past in the house and then back again - you never quite know where you are. The tale begins with a house party in Rye at which the mystery of an unfinished tale by James, 'The Beautiful Child', is read and discussed. There are so many people at this house party you get confused about who is who and soon you cease to care. There's a sickly adolescent girl among the party who seems to be in danger from ghosts in the house, but this so sketchy one hardly knows. And one is not sure whether 'The Beautiful Child', the text of which is given here, is by James himself or by Emma Tennant (if it's the latter, it's an accomplished pastiche). I could not find it listed in the Index of Leon Edel's five-volume biography of the writer, if that's any indication. The confusions multiply...
The tale within the larger ghost story concerns a painter of child portraits who is approached by a couple who want to commission a portrait of a child. They cannot have children themselves, and this portrait will be a kind of substitute for one; as such, the artist is to choose the model himself, who will remain anonymous. Furthermore, they cannot agree on the sex of the child. The painter is intrigued by the commission... But there James leaves the story unfinished. However, ghosts of his two female secretaries do have the completion of the tale, supposedly done through a Ouija board communication from the other side, one which was inspired by twin infants of the maid Fanny. What happened to these two infants at the end of the book is supposed to be an horrific climax, but it comes across as unreal and a bit of a let down.
Professor Jan Sunderland, an academic expert of James, who is telling much of the story, moves from one haunted time to another and has a terrifying time at Lamb House with the awful Smiths, butler and housekeeper to James for sixteen years. If it had all been told by him in a straightforward fashion it might have lost some of its literary cleverness and tricksy unreliability but it would have made for a more satisfying and gripping read. As it is, I put it down with admiration for Tennant's skills tempered by disappointment and puzzlement. James and Lamb House has appeared in several novels of late, perhaps because he is such a mysterious figure and because the house has such an ambience, as if his presence still haunts the place; this one doesn't match up to them, despite its promising nature. But still worth reading, and maybe with a closer reading it would reveal more than it did to me.