A brilliant homage to Henry James' famous is-it-or-isn't-it-a-ghost-story The Turn of the Screw, Florence & Giles is a gripping, claustrophobic tale with all the hallmarks of classic Gothic literature. A young girl, 12-year-old Florence, lives at Blithe, a huge, rambling house in 1890s New England, almost entirely isolated from society but for her simple-minded half-brother, three kindly servants and occasionally, her gangly, dangerously asthmatic friend and admirer, Theo Van Hoosier. Regularly told that the house is haunted, the orphaned Florence is in the supposed 'care' of a mysterious uncle she has never seen, but whose dangerously handsome portrait glowers at her daily. Florence is mostly self-educated - her uncle has actively forbidden that she be taught to read, but she's far too resourceful to let that stop her - and spends her days secretly poring over her beloved books in Blithe's forbidden library or sequestering herself with them in a dusty secret tower.
It's this that gives Florence, who narrates the story, a precocious if peculiar way with words: her vocabulary is impressive, yet having learned that Shakespeare liked to play with language, Florence does too. Although her speech when talking to the other characters is normal, her inner voice, and the one she uses to narrate the story, is almost a dialect of its own. Nouns, adjectives and verbs become jumbled: hiding in the tower is 'princessing', an accident on the lake is described as the victim 'tragicking herself'. I can appreciate that some readers might find this 'cheese-grates' on them, as Florence would say, but I felt that it lent the book exactly the air of oddness, of awkwardness, that it needed. For there is an overwhelming sense of not-quite-rightness about life at Blithe, a creeping, oppressive uncertainty that there is something wrong.
Like Henry James' governess narrator, Florence, unloved and emotionally neglected and terrified of losing her adored Giles, is not the most reliable of narrators. Is her intense fear and hatred of Miss Taylor, Giles' governess, justified? And if so, why? Is Blithe really haunted by ghosts in human form, intent on harming the vulnerable little boy? Even as the novel builds to its tense, shocking conclusion, much is left unclear. I had my own idea of what Miss Taylor was, but who knows if I was correct? Florence & Giles is a mass of hints with a myriad of interpretations, and a deeply engaging protagonist who will get under your skin in the best of ways.
A must for fans of The Turn of the Screw, this will appeal to lovers of Poe - Florence's own favourite - and Le Fanu too, as well as anyone who likes an intelligent slow-build psychological chiller.