Friday, January 29, 2016

Ms. Hen reviews MISS EMILY

Nuala O’Connor
Penguin Books

Ms. Hen decided to read this novel because the author has the same last name as she does, and also because she is entranced with Emily Dickinson. Many years ago, Ms. Hen visited Emily Dickinson’s Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, and she has always wondered what Miss Dickinson was really like, was she truly mad? Was she happy never leaving her house? And what made her so afraid of other people?

Ms. Hen knew that these questions would not be answered by reading this novel, because, the fact is, it is fiction. But this novel breathes life into Emily Dickinson. Ms. Hen always wondered what her writing methods were, and this novel describes the way Miss Dickinson wrote, and reading this made Ms. Hen imagine her better.

MISS EMILY brought to mind MARCH by Geraldine Brooks, a spinoff novel of Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN. Ms. Hen wondered when she read MARCH if Louisa May Alcott would approve of it, and Ms. Hen decided that Miss Alcott would have. Ms. Hen also tried to decide if Emily Dickinson would enjoy MISS EMILY, but Ms. Hen was not sure about that. Louisa May Alcott was a daring and brave woman, who would have embraced the raciness in MARCH, but poor Miss Emily never left her house, and Ms. Hen thinks there’s a possibility Miss Emily would die many times over if she read Nuala O’Connor’s novel. But Ms. Hen doesn’t know. Nobody knows what Emily Dickinson would think because not much is known about her.

Ms. Hen thought that MISS EMILY would be a sweet novel about friendship between Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid Ada Concannon. It started out that way. The new servant comes to the house, and Emily and Ada converse while they bake together in the kitchen. But somewhere in the middle, the novel turns dark. Ms. Hen was disgusted at what happens. But she found when she arrived at the shocking part, she couldn’t stop reading. A force overtook Ms. Hen and she plowed through the novel.

Even though there are disturbing parts, the writing in this novel is delightful and charming. It contains such an Irish lilt to it that Ms. Hen could hear Ada’s voice; she embraced the things Ada said because she felt they were part of her language, even though her family has lived in the United States for over one hundred years. As well as being about Emily Dickinson, this novel is also about the Irish experience in America in the nineteenth century. Ms. Hen is not used to such blatant prejudice in her country now, but those were different times.

There are a least ten places where hens or chickens are mentioned in MISS EMILY.  Ms. Hen thought this was appropriate since the novel took place in a rural area. Ms. Hen finds there are usually hens in novels about the country, because they are everywhere. One of Ms. Hen’s favorite quotes from MISS EMILY is, “Since Ada arrived, the hens have been laying again.” The father thinks she might be a sorceress, since she has bewitched Emily and facilitates the household smoothly.

Ms. Hen does not remember when she read a more charming, surprising and all-encompassing novel. She loved living in Emily Dickinson’s world for a short time. She felt like she got to know Miss Emily better than she had before. Ms. Hen gives MISS EMILY five feathers up, because how could she not.

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