Henry James’s “What Maisie Knew” – book review

“Poor little monkey!” (…) the words were an epitaph for the tomb of Maisie’s childhood. She was abandoned to her fate. What was clear to any spectator was that the only link binding her to either parent was this lamentable fact of her being a ready vessel of bitterness, a deep little porcelain cup in which biting acids could be mixed. They had wanted her not for any good they could do her, but for the harm they could, with her unconscious aid, do each other.”

Thus begins the story of the childhood of Maisie Farange. Henry James portrays the story of a brutal divorce and its consequences through the eyes of a child. His readers are invited to read through the lines, interpreting events that the girl, in her innocence, does not know how to interpret. Through her “wonder”, James aspires to make tragic characters out of people he describes as “vulgar”. The skill with which he does all this is incredible. I spent the first one hundred pages in sheer awe of what James achieves here. There are many descriptions of adult callousness seen through the eyes of a child keen to justify its parents. The reader follows Maisie’s struggle to make sense of an entirely nonsensical world.

The last third of the novel did feel a bit long, which is why on Goodreads I gave this novel 4 out of 5 stars. But this is only because I’m comparing this as a Henry James novel to other Henry James novels.

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