The Girl Who Couldn’t Read by John Harding

A year or two ago I read a book called ‘Florence and Giles.’ It was a deliciously gothic tale; a reimagining, a distortion, of ‘The Turn of the Screw’; and the centre of it all was the most wonderful character.

Florence was trapped in a gothic mansion, she was forbidden to read, but she found a way to learn and to keep that secret, and she loved reading and words so much that she developed the language she read, making nouns into verbs, joining words in unexpected ways to make gloriously expressive expressions, and twisting the English language into something magically new and strange.

When I learned that there was a sequel I rushed to order a copy from the library.

This isn’t Florence’s story, but she has a pivotal part to play.

In New England, in the 1890s, Doctor John Shepherd arrives at an isolated women’s mental hospital to begin work as assistant to the owner, Doctor Morgan. He is shocked by what he sees, he realises that things are not right, and his mind fills with questions:

  • Why are so many of the patients treated do very harshly?
  • Who is the woman who wanders the corridors by night with murderous intent?
  • Why does the Nurse O’Reilly so hostile, and why does she have so many privileges?
  • Why are only Doctor Morgan and Nurse O’Reilly permitted to visit the third floor?

The new doctor wants answers, but he has to tread carefully. Because it is clear from the start that he isn’t John Shepard. And that he isn’t a doctor at all.

Can he keep his secrets? Can he uncover the secrets of the hospital?

The possibilities were intriguing, the setting was so evocative, and then there was Florence ….

9780007324231Doctor Shepherd was intrigued by a patient known as Jane Dove. That wasn’t her real name. she said that she couldn’t remember that. She couldn’t remember anything of her life before she was found at a railway station and was admitted to hospital.

She knew that she wasn’t allowed to read but she so loved stories, and she had a distinctive way of speaking, making nouns into verbs, joining words in unexpected ways to make gloriously expressive expressions ….

Doctor Shepherd persuaded Doctor Morgan to him take charge of her an attempt, to let him try to prove that there were  humane alternatives to the hospital’s harsh treatments.

He was sure that he could persuade Jane to learn to read, that he could restore her memories. And he thought that maybe she would offer him the chance of escaping from the hospital and from his own troubled past.

Maybe he could. Maybe she would. But of course it wasn’t as simple as that.

The story moves like a thriller, written in language that is clear and direct, concise and urgent; it is the perfectly evoked setting, the well-drawn characters, and the intriguing questions hanging in the air make it enthralling.

The plot grew nicely, with lovely echoes of a certain other story, and as it accelerated to a conclusion all of the promise that I saw was realised, and the echoes of that story grew louder.

The plotting was so well done, with twists nicely scattered, and the strand of bookishness threaded through was lovely.

The finale was pitch perfect.

And I think there is an opening for a third book.

I do hope there will be a third book ….

11 responses

  1. You make these sound so good! I haven’t read anything by John Harding yet, but I own One Big Damn Puzzler, and have been looking forward to it. Maybe I should bump it up!

  2. Pingback: Last Month’s Reading and Next Reading « Fleur in her World

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