Published by HarperTeen on September 25, 2012
Genres: Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal
A dark house.
An isolated island.
and even stranger
visions . . .
Jack is spending the summer on a private island far from modern conveniences. No Wi-Fi, no cell service, no one else on the island but a housekeeper and the two very peculiar children in his care. The first time Jack sees the huge black mansion atop a windswept hill, he senses something cold, something more sinister than even the dark house itself.
Soon, he feels terribly isolated and alone. Yet he is not alone. The house has visitors—peering in the windows, staring from across the shore. But why doesn't anyone else see them . . . and what do they want? As secrets are revealed and darker truths surface, Jack desperately struggles to maintain a grip on reality. He knows what he sees, and he isn't crazy. . . . Or is he?
From nationally acclaimed author Francine Prose comes a mind-bending story that will leave you realizing how subtle the lines that separate reality, imagination, and insanity really are.
The Turn of the Screw is one of my favorite classics. It’s a gothic ghost story that leaves the reader questioning the reality of the events unfolding in the story. So when I saw that there was a young adult remake of this classic, I was ecstatic and immediately borrowed it from my local library. (Well, I had to wait two weeks for it to come in through interlibrary loan, but I immediately placed my request when I saw my library didn’t own it.)
Disappointment accompanied me throughout much of the book. Most of the elements borrowed from The Turn of the Screw felt off in a modern retelling. Even as the author tried to maintain a heavy sense of foreboding and an ominous atmosphere, it fell flat. I know part of it was that I didn’t care for Jack, the hero of the story, nor the way it was told through letters, but I also think the premise in general didn’t make much sense.
The premise of the story, and I think this is where it starts to lose me, is that Jack has a summer job caring for two orphans on a remote island where there is no internet, television, telephones, or other children. How likely is it that someone in modern America would try to isolate children that completely? I can maybe see television and internet, but not the rest. So on top of this Mr. Crackstone, the guardian of these orphans, gives Jack the job with the promise that he not contact him about the children regardless of circumstances…Mr. Crackstone is just too busy and important. While this part, again, is similar to the original story it seems outdated and not what one would expect of a modern family, regardless of their wealth and status. I understand why the author chose to do this, it’s an easy way (lazy even) to isolate the characters in a time when the internet and media makes it difficult to disconnect from the world.
Regardless of the weird meeting with Mr. Crackstone Jack decides to leave his girlfriend for the summer, whom he has a Romeo and Juliet type relationship with, in order to earn money for college. Since there is no way to communicate with people by normal means he’s decided to write her a letter everyday. The story is told primarily through Jack’s letters to his girlfriend Sophie and letters to his dad. We also get a few in return from Sophie and his dad, although not many.
There’s an art to the epistolary novel that I don’t think the author has fully grasped. Instead of adding to the book, the letters are just a literary device used to move the plot along as the narrator tells us what’s going on in his day. Emphasis on tell. Entire scenes and conversations are recreated in these letters, in long flowery descriptions and an attention to detail that I find suspect in a teenage boy. The letters were awkwardly executed, especially in the beginning, when he’s literally retelling Sophie things she already knows. Not just about how he got his job, but also about her own family and her father’s reluctance to accept their relationship. The letters act essentially as an infodump for the reader and it throws off the pacing of the story. The novel would have been better served to lose the letters, or maybe just have a narrative with some letters thrown in. Losing most of the letters also would have given us time out of Jack’s voice.
Jack was an annoying character that did not at all sound like a teenage guy. He basically sounds like an adult pretending to be a teen, and doing it poorly. I found it odd that he actually had a girlfriend. He’s needy, insecure, paranoid, and exhibits irrational and histrionic behavior. As the story continues his letters become drenched in paranoia and petulance and he’s convinced that Sophie is cheating on him. His rants to her were difficult to read. All I could think was she should move on before he got home and did something crazy. I didn’t like him from page one and continued to dislike him as the story unfolded, which is a shame since we’re stuck in his head throughout the book. However, I will say that the author did a good job raising doubt in the reader’s mind on whether or not Jack’s perception could be trusted. He’s a classic example of an unreliable narrator.
The children, Miles and Flora, are probably the most interesting characters towards the beginning of the book. They’re kind of creepy in their antiquated politeness and shared looks and secretive smiles. I thought this was keeping in form of the original. Unfortunately, by the end of the book all of the creepy traits had been removed from their personality and they’re just normal children.
I also liked the housekeeper, Linda, who is pretty much the children’s surrogate mother. She’s a straightforward character and I wish she was more than just the obligatory adult supervision. After all you can’t leave a teenager in charge of two children for the summer without some sort of adult presence. I wish she had been built up more and I think I would have liked to see the events from her point of view, especially the ending.
The “ghosts” are kind of a let down. They didn’t really do much. In The Turn of the Screw they were an overwhelming presence throughout the story. Lucy and Norris didn’t really lend much of anything to The Turning. Lucy is just a super depressed ghost who really didn’t need to be a character. Nothing was really done with her. Norris is kind of important…I guess, since we find out the big mystery for why Miles was kicked out of school. He was gambling for pennies while playing poker, a game he learned from Norris.
I think the book would have been well served to keep the darker aspects of The Turn of the Screw, especially with regards to the ending. Instead, Jack is convinced that Norris is after the children’s souls (again similar to the original) and he tries to protect them by ranting and waving a golf club at a specter that only he can see. Unlike the original, there’s no tension and no deaths. It was quite laughable. In fact I was actually laughing at this point.
The ending and sort of epilogue was anticlimactic and rather abrupt. It ends with Jack writing Sophie from a mental hospital. (Why he is still writing letters who knows?) He apologizes for writing terrible ranting letters to her while he was on the island and convinced she was cheating on him. He then alludes to his being sick from a fever and getting help for his hallucinations. While he’s pretty sure it was all in his head he’s still not quite convinced of this. This is an attempt to leave the reader wondering is Jack crazy or are the ghosts real? (Spoiler: He’s crazy!) Seriously, no one would think at all that the ghosts actually exist and even if they do, who cares? They’re uninteresting and not the least bit scary.
Anyway, Jack is hoping Sophie will wait for him and that she still loves him, because he still loves her. If I were Sophie, I would move and change my name before Psycho gets out. No self respecting girl would be in a relationship with this guy. He’s a terrible boyfriend and not a great guy. Also, Jack plays matchmaker with Linda and his dad which is kind of bizarre. I can’t imagine Jack is welcome back on the island, which might make things difficult. I know if I was Miles and Flora I would never want to see him again.
Overall, I was disappointed with the book. I think the author might have been too ambitious modeling her story after a great classic like The Turn of the Screw. One can’t help but make comparisons and this is inferior in every way to the original. I feel if she had been able to incorporate more of the darker elements of the original in the story and had made Jack less annoying and maybe more authentic it would have fared better in a comparison.