The Girl Who Couldn't Read by John Harding
A few years ago I read and reviewed Florence & Giles, a beguiling, unsettling Gothic mystery by John Harding offering an alternative take on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. It’s been one of my stand-out reads of the last five years, so I was naturally excited at the release of a sequel, The Girl Who Couldn’t Read, in 2014.
The Girl Who Couldn’t Read, an elegant thriller with shades of Edgar Allan Poe, does work as a novel in its own right (although I’m reluctant to say that you don’t need to read Florence & Giles because I think everyone does, whether they fancy the sequel or not). It begins with a young man who, having stolen the luggage and the identity of John Shepherd, a stranger killed in a train crash, arrives at a women’s mental institution in 19th century New England to take up that stranger’s new position there. Shocked at the treatment of the hospital’s inmates (think enforced immersion in freezing water, a near-starvation diet and restraining chairs) and, inspired by a text book from his stolen suitcase, he challenges the hospital’s director to let him choose an inmate to be singled out for ‘moral treatment’.
The inmate in question is Jane Dove, a young woman with severe amnesia, bizarre speech patterns and an inability to read – not because she doesn’t think she could learn, but because she is firmly, fearfully convinced she isn’t allowed to. While taking on the challenge of curing Jane of her mental illness, Shepherd is forced to take increasingly extreme measures to conceal his true identity, and haunted not only by his own guilt but by the sinister presence of a malevolent woman who stalks the hospital corridors at night.
One of the great strengths of The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is the narrator himself – apparently a trained actor who has escaped a traumatic childhood, he comes across from the outset as a loveable rogue, an unscrupulous but ultimately harmless con-artist. Similarly, Jane Dove is also oddly endearing, full of comical idiosyncrasies and, like Shepherd, struggling under the burden of an assumed identity – and the two are nicely offset by creepy, dapper Dr Morgan and his matter-of-fact cruelty and by the sadistic warden Mrs O’Reilly, who has a touch of Mrs Danvers about her as well as a hint of Nurse Ratched. But it’s worth remembering that in Florence & Giles, John Harding proved adept at confounding not only the expectations but also the trust of the reader: no assumptions are safe here.
The strong Gothic undercurrent of The Girl Who Couldn’t Read comes at least in part from the infamous ‘mad woman in the attic’ motif and the claustrophobic isolation of the setting, but also from guilt, imprisonment and the ever-present fear of mental illness. Who, exactly, is the mad one here?
Could it be nobody? Or it is perhaps everyone?
There are a few twists in this tale – one, in particular, is a jaw-dropper, all the more so because it comes not at the end of the story but around halfway through. The Girl Who Couldn't Read is atmospheric, clever, full of the smart literary and linguistic allusions you’ll find in Florence & Giles (and also in another Harding novel, albeit one wholly different in setting and tone: the outstanding One Big Damn Puzzler), witty and a fine mystery in its own right.