miss jane by brad watson

Times literary Supplement march 8 2017

Author portrait ©   Sarah Lee

Brad Watson’s second novel is both charming and disquieting. The Miss Jane of the title is a baby born with a genital birth defect which Watson reveals by degrees. Notions of how anatomy constitutes identity might now seem modish, but Watson sets his novel in rural Mississippi during the early twentieth century and was inspired by the real-life example of his great-aunt, who died in 1975. This historical setting is crucial: the defect, which the reader can gradually piece together as being persistent cloaca, could now be operated on, but Watson is interested in exploring how a woman isolated by this abnormality could learn to live. The book’s singular subject matter, as well as Watson’s careful exploration of it, have won it a place on the longlist for the Wellcome Book Prize, an award for books with a “central theme that engages with some aspect of medicine, health or illness”.

The infant Jane is regarded by the sharecroppers and tenants on her family’s farm like “one of the animals in their care”. Although she only attends school briefly, and her incontinence makes it difficult for her to socialize at all, there is a sense that what differentiates Jane from other girls also liberates her. We know that pregnancy made Jane’s mother feel detached from herself, “[f]eeling in her reeling mind that her body was already changing, taking itself away from her again”. Female sexuality is largely seen as a burden.

Jane, however, is freed from considering the traditional roles of wife and mother because she cannot fulfil them. In spite of this, and the pain that the abrupt end of an early courtship brings her, she is an emphatically sensual person. She takes pleasure in “the soft skins of wild mushrooms, the quick and violent death of a chicken, the tight and unopened bud of a flower blossom”. The lyricism of Watson’s prose adds plausibility to Jane’s psychology. Nonetheless, it feels disappointing that it is the clichéd act of eating her first oyster that gives rise to “palpitations of ecstasy”.

This instance displays a rare lack of originality in a novel that examines social isolation and autonomy with such freshness. Ultimately, for all her eroticism, Jane holds the reader at one remove – which makes the impact of this odd, beguiling novel all the more surprising.

This review originally appeared in the Times Literary Supplement in March 2017