I seemed to float not into clearness, but into a darker obscure, and within a minute there had come to me out of my very pity the appalling alarm of his being perhaps innocent. It was for the instant confounding and bottomless, for if he were innocent, what then on earth was I?—Henry James, The Turn of the Screw.
This fall, when the leaves began to change color and the evenings turned brisk up here in Maine, I kicked off my annual regimen of Spooky Reads with Adele Griffin’s re-imagining of The Turn of the Screw: Tighter (Knopf, 2011).
Discover more great mysteries & thrillers among our 2011 Best Books for Teens.
Not only is Henry James’ novella (rightly) regarded as a masterpiece*, it’s a story that’s been referenced and re-interpreted again and again. Even as opera! So writing a YA version was a gutsy move on Griffin’s part. After all, what new wrinkle could she possibly add, other than setting it in the present and lowering the age of the narrator by a few years?
Well, I’ll tell you.
People still argue about the governess in The Turn of the Screw. Is she lucid or hallucinating? Reliable or unreliable? Sane or insane? Passions run high, and in my experience, you’re either in one camp or the other.** In Tighter, it’s clear that 17-year-old Jamie Atkinson is unreliable from her very first line:
The last thing I did before I left home was steal pills.
Rather than creating a feeling of complacency, the immediate reveal of her self-medicating habit ups the tension, the paranoia, the claustrophobic atmosphere and the number of questions: Because no matter how drugged up Jamie gets, it’s clear that something’s off at Little Bly. The former au pair and her boyfriend died mysteriously. Jamie looks so much like her predecessor that she turns heads on the beach. The McRae children seem to know more than they’re letting on. Someone is vandalizing the house. Jamie’s seeing people that no one else will admit to seeing.
Then again, her visions started before she even arrived on the island...
Like any great story with a killer twist—a twist that enhances the story and adds a secondary reading, rather than simply serving as a “gotcha!” ending—I’m looking forward to rereading Tighter for the hidden layers. It’s safe to say that unlike the black-and-white sane vs. insane debate that arises in every conversation about The Turn of the Screw, discussions of Tighter will reside in the more nebulous and more interesting gray area.
*Haven’t read it? The Turn of the Screw in a nutshell: Young governess goes to care for two young children. She keeps seeing menacing figures who bear a striking resemblance to the previous governess and her employer’s former valet. Which is an issue, since they are both dead...
**I’m in the sane-and-seeing-ghosts camp. After reading Tighter, I reread Turn of the Screw, and that reaffirmed my belief in the governess as a reliable narrator. You?
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy is probably maniacally organizing all of her music into far-too-specific Spotify playlists.