Aspen Times Weekly book review: ‘Miss Jane’
284 pages, hardcover; $25.95
W.W. Norton & Company, 2016
In the bizarre politics of 2016, the genitalia of one’s birth and how one ought to live based on them has somehow become a contested national question.
But the question is not entirely new, as Brad Watson’s elegant new novel “Miss Jane” makes clear. The book is a tender, closely observed cradle-to-grave account of the life of Jane Chisolm. She’s born in 1915 into a rural Mississippi family that doesn’t want her, with a defect that should limit the quality of her life but never quite does.
Written, in part, during an Aspen Words residency in Woody Creek, “Miss Jane” has been nominated for the National Book Award.
Jane has a rare condition in which, as doctor puts it to her early on, “everything is kind of tucked up inside you.” She cannot have sex, bear children or control her bowels. But, we find in Watson’s rich portrait of Jane’s inner life, the physical limitations can’t keep her from longing and loving and lusting.
The Chisolm family and the world expect little from Jane – they keep her out of school and leave her to a lonesome existence. But she transcends with the help of a country doctor, Thompson, who searches for cures while taking the bright young Jane under his wing. He watches her bloom into a fiercely independent, intelligent woman in the woods around the farm, bonding with the peacocks on his property.
Watson has a subtle and empathetic touch in his complex characterizations of Jane and her doctor, as well has Jane’s hard-drinking father (a chapter from his point of view, watching Jane at a school dance, is a high point) and her ditzy sister whose life is as complicated by sex as Jane’s isn’t.
Thompson comforts Jane at one point by explaining her condition “gives you license that others may not have” and puts her “on a higher moral ground.”
The novel circles constantly around Jane’s “strangeness,” yet Watson won’t turn her into a victim or an object of pity. Sure, she’s strange in her way. But aren’t we all?
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