If I had to use just one word to sum up the atmosphere of Adele Griffin's new novel, TIGHTER, it would be "dread." Almost from the first page, you know that good things are not likely to happen to Jamie when she heads to Little Bly island for the summer.
Jamie's job is as an au pair for 11-year-old Isa, a girl who seems alternately older and younger than her age. Jamie has been hired sight unseen by Isa's father, an old boyfriend of her mother. He's living in Hong Kong, leaving his summer "cottage" (actually a striking mansion) in the hands of the foreboding housekeeper, Connie.
Although Jamie is not sure exactly why she's been hired, she's eager to spend the summer away. After an almost-affair with her chemistry teacher, 17-year-old Jamie entertained thoughts of suicide, thoughts that become ever more present when she has recurrent nightmares of her relatives who killed themselves. Prescription sleeping pills and painkillers --- drugs she stole from her parents' medicine cabinet before leaving for Little Bly --- help keep the specters at bay, but they can also make her feel distant from reality.
Jamie and Isa hit it off right away, but when Isa's older brother, Milo, returns from summer camp under suspicious circumstances, Jamie is both fascinated and repelled by his charms. And when she learns that she bears an uncanny resemblance to the au pair who worked with Isa and Milo the previous summer only to die under mysterious circumstances, Jamie starts wondering if the figures she sees haunting the grounds of the family mansion are ghosts, the product of an overactive imagination, or the result of too many prescription pain pills.
All Jamie wants is to have a normal summer, to attend some barbecues with the locals and the summer people, to maybe have a summer romance, to forget about the messes she has made of her life back home. But as the summer progresses and the sinister signs of ghostly presence become harder to ignore, Jamie finds herself tugged farther from normal and closer to danger.
Adele Griffin based TIGHTER on Henry James's novella "The Turn of the Screw." Although many of the details have been changed in this 21st-century adaptation, the overall arc of the story, and even some of the characters' names, are the same. As in James's original, readers are hard-pressed to decide what in Jamie's narrative is true and what is fantasy or delusion. The result is disorienting, in a good way, as readers on some level participate in Jamie's own feelings of confusion. The novel is also --- like "The Turn of the Screw" --- ultimately ambiguous, making it a great choice for discussion in a book group, perhaps read side-by-side with James's classic ghost story.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on May 10, 2011