Since his award-winning debut collection of stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men , Brad Watson has been expanding the literary traditions of the South, in work as melancholy, witty, strange, and lovely as any in America.
Now, drawing on the story of his own great-aunt, Watson explores the life of Miss Jane Chisolm, born in rural, early-twentieth-century Mississippi with a genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central "uses" for a woman in that time and place: sex and marriage.Read more...
Since his award-winning debut collection of stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men, Brad Watson has been expanding the literary traditions of the South, in work as melancholy, witty, strange, and lovely as any in America.
Now, drawing on the story of his own great-aunt, Watson explores the life of Miss Jane Chisolm, born in rural, early-twentieth-century Mississippi with a genital birth defect that would stand in the way of the central "uses" for a woman in that time and place: sex and marriage. From the highly erotic world of nature around her to the hard tactile labor of farm life, from the country doctor who befriends her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her, Miss Jane Chisolm and her world are anything but barren.
The potency and implacable cruelty of nature, as well as its beauty, is a trademark of Watson's fiction. In Miss Jane, the author brings to life a hard, unromantic past that is tinged with the sadness of unattainable loves, yet shot through with a transcendent beauty. Jane Chisolm's irrepressible vitality and generous spirit give her the strength to live her life as she pleases in spite of the limitations that others, and her own body, would place on her. Free to satisfy only herself, she mesmerizes those around her, exerting an unearthly fascination that lives beyond her still.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-05-02
- Reviewer: Staff
“Who can say what life will make of a body?” Watson (House of Mercury) asks in the affecting, nuanced story of a girl who “did not fear her own strangeness.” Jane, the youngest daughter of a Mississippi sharecropper, is born with a genital defect that renders her incontinent and incapable of having children. A local doctor takes an interest in Jane’s case—as well as her father’s home-brewed apple brandy—and becomes a lifelong advisor and confidant to the “prodigiously contemplative” girl. Jane is most comfortable in the woods around her house, though she does tentatively engage with the world, knowing full well that “she would always be the odd one, the one with the secret.” She indulges in a girlhood romance cautiously, unsure about what, if anything, to reveal about her condition. Jane is a great watcher, and the novel wonderfully conveys the amorous intensity with which she experiences nature’s fecundity, “the burst of salty liquid from a plump and ice-cold raw oyster, the soft skins of wild mushrooms... the tight and unopened bud of a flower blossom.” The story of Jane’s lonely, lovely life is more powerful because of its emotional reserve. With the exception of several stagey confrontations involving Jane’s older, coarser sister, Grace, Watson lets his ethereal heroine retain her quiet, dignified air of mystery. (July)
A big-hearted story of a small life
BookPage Fiction Top Pick, July 2016
About three pages into Miss Jane I found myself both transfixed and perplexed. Who is this Brad Watson and why am I just now discovering him? A finalist for the 2002 National Book Award and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and Granta, he is certainly a known quantity. But finally with Miss Jane, it seems he has a novel that will break him out to the wider readership he so deserves.
Set in Mercury, Mississippi, in the early 20th century, Miss Jane is the story of Jane Chisolm, a woman born with a genital birth defect that renders her “useless” in a time when a woman was intended for two purposes: marriage and motherhood. Contrary to other independent-minded literary heroines like Edna Pontellier in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening or the unnamed narrator in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Jane is not actively shunning social expectations, but rather forced into a life of solitude by circumstances beyond her control. But her curiosity, courage and resolve to live life on her terms places her in the company of these unique characters.
In Miss Jane, Watson creates a rural Mississippi that exudes Southern gothic at its very best. Jane is a heroine considered by most in her community, including her family, to be damaged goods. And yet, through her relationship with a country doctor who supports and advocates for her, and the gentle boy who loves her despite her abnormality, Jane emerges as the member of her family who experiences the truest forms of love and connection.
Like the peacocks that the doctor raises on his farm, Jane’s strange yet beautiful spirit possesses a haunting, anachronistic beauty. Miss Jane is a truly original novel with a character that readers will cherish. Watson has delivered a striking and unforgettable portrait.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a behind the book feature about Miss Jane.