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Pickle Me This

October 14, 2010

On rereading What Maisie Knew

Well, I’ve been defeated. I reread Henry James’ What Maisie Knew, all prepared for that smug “I was so much stupider then, I’m starter than that now” feeling I often receive when I revisit a book I read in university. Because I remember really disliking Maisie when I read it back in Major British Novels or some such second year course, and how in our prof’s lecture notes, every fifth word was “ambiguous”, and I don’t know if I’d ever heard that word before, but by the end of the lecture I hated it. But I’m a better reader now, and I like everything else by Henry James I’ve ever read, and I read this after Room by Emma Donoghue to compare the children’s perspectives. But it just didn’t do it for me.

Of course, it’s not you, it’s me, I say to What Maisie Knew. And I really mean it– somewhere beneath these many-claused sentences, and multi-paged paragraphs, and so much explaining of just what I lost track, there is a really good novel here. The story of a young girl whose parents divorce and use her as a weapon against the other, and then the web is further tangled by step-parents, and other lovers, and a love-sick governess who refuses to do what she is told.

How much does Maisie know? Probably more than she’s meant to, but then I really don’t know. This novel required far more work than I was willing to offer in order to extract just what exactly was going on. Skip half a paragraph, and you’re lost, but reading the character carefully, word-for-word, I was still lost, so what was the point?

This is probably a really remarkable book, but I’m tired and have a head-cold.

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