Read: April 2016
Genre: Gothic fiction, literary fiction
When a young doctor begins work at an isolated mental asylum, he is expected to fall in with the shocking regime for treating the patients. He is soon intrigued by one patient, a strange amnesiac girl who is fascinated by books but cannot read. He embarks upon a desperate experiment to save her but when his own dark past begins to catch up with him, he realises it is she who is his only hope of escape.
In this chilling literary thriller from a master storyteller, everyone has something to hide and no one is what they seem.
The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is a sequel to John Harding’s earlier novel Florence & Giles, though really, I’m hesitant to call it such. Florence & Giles was told from the perspective of Florence, a twelve-year-old orphan who lives in a Gothic New England mansion with her younger brother Giles. After the sudden death of their previous governess, a new one arrives, one whom Florence believes poses a threat to her and her younger brother.
Florence is one of the most compelling characters I’ve ever read about. She has been forbidden to read by her uncle, their guardian, who doesn’t believe women should be educated. Florence teaches herself to read regardless, and makes up her own words. It was fascinating reading from her perspective, and I was keen to see how she would be presented from another person’s perspective, especially now that she’s older. However, much to my disappointment, Florence wasn’t present for much of this novel, despite being the subject of the book’s title. Because of that, you definitely don’t need to have read Florence & Giles to read this book—in fact, I think you’d enjoy the book more if you hadn’t read it. It’s more of a companion novel, given that it doesn’t really touch upon the events of the book except to recount them. It doesn’t really expand the narrative of the novel either, given that we don’t receive what I would have thought to be important information, such as how she ended up in the asylum in the first place, or where Giles is. Frankly, the only benefit of having read Florence & Giles before this is that you know that Florence isn’t the benign presence the doctors and nurses of the asylum are content to believe she is.
Instead of Florence, The Girl Who Couldn’t Read is narrated by a man calling himself John Shepard, the asylum’s newest doctor. Shepard was a very interesting narrator, and he only becomes even more interesting the more apparent it is that he definitely is not Doctor John Shepard. The mystery behind his identity certainly makes for compelling reading, and his later anxiety and paranoia about being discovered creates a lot of tension in the latter part of the novel.
The Girl Who Couldn’t Read focuses mostly on the asylum, and it’s incredibly good in its depiction of it. Given the bibliography present at the end of this novel, Harding certainly did his research, and it’s evident in how well the asylum is rendered. Shepard, who is initially disturbed by the way these women are treated, but eventually becomes somewhat complacent with the regime. As a reader, it’s incredibly disturbing to see how perfectly sane women were sent to the asylum, and were often never released. For instance, one woman is sent because, after the death of her baby, she goes into shock, and will not speak. Her inability to grieve how people anticipate she should grieve leads her to being accused of killing her child, so she’s sent to the asylum.
‘Cured? Let out, you say? Pardon me for saying so, sir, but I think it’s you that’s mad. Don’t you realise they are never cured? Once they’re in here, they’re here for life. It’s very rare for them to leave, sir. They’re beyond that.’
The Girl Who Couldn’t Read
Arguably, even Florence is wrongfully sent to the asylum. The only details we were given is that she was harassing people in the street, asking them for help, but because of her odd use of language, no one can understand her. The police are called, and she’s then sent to the asylum. Without spoiling Florence & Giles, there’s a much bigger reason why Florence might have been sent there, and it has absolutely nothing to do with her language.
Florence’s language was one of the things I most enjoyed about Florence & Giles, and while it has a minor presence in this, I think much of the appreciation for language and literature comes across in this novel, too. Florence loves Shakespeare, and at the very beginning of the novel, Shepard lingers over a complete collection of his works. This means that literature has an almost haunting presence in the novel, given that it’s something primarily associated with Florence.
The thing I liked most about Shakespeare was his free and easy way with words. It seemed that if there wasn’t a word for what he wanted to say, he simply made one up. He barded the language. For making up words, he knocks any other writer dead. When I am grown and a writer myself, as I know I shall be, I intend to Shakespeare a few words of my own. I am already practising now.
Florence & Giles
The text that this novel primarily evokes is Jane Eyre, beginning mostly with the fact that Florence’s name in the asylum is Jane Dove, given that she has “forgotten” her real name. There is another, more obvious parallel, but I won’t mention it because it’s a huge spoiler. Suffice to say that the involvement these two books have with literature more widely is something that I really enjoy about them.
‘I feel at home with all these books around me. It’s like being among friends. There are so many stories I can construct from the pictures I find. If you have imagination, sir, you are never in jail.’
The Girl Who Couldn’t Read
Overall, I did really like this book, I think it mostly suffered under the weight of my expectations. I would have liked more Florence, but I’m very biased towards her—her character was basically the inspiration for my masters’ dissertation. It’s definitely one that I would recommend, especially if you haven’t read Florence & Giles. Ultimately, however, I still think that I prefer its prequel.