Long-listed for the National Book Award for Fiction, Miss Jane is a wonderful piece of prose that brings to life a forgotten woman and a strange pastoral Southern America. Writer, Brad Watson creates a romantic portrait of Jane Chisolm, based on his great-aunt, who had been the subject of tittle-tattle in her own life. Watson, however, captures the simple things that bring delight to his character; her experiences at a community dance or a picnic with the kindly doctor are all mere instants of kind-heartedness in a life largely marked by isolation.
Since his award-winning collection of short stories, Last Days of the Dog-Men, Brad Watson has been working on and developing the literary traditions of the South. With Miss Jane, Watson explores the life of a woman, born in rural, early-twentieth-century Mississippi with a genital birth defect which would obviously have a massive impact on the life of a woman in this era: sex and marriage. Miss Jane Chisolm and her world are anything but barren; from the highly erotic world of nature around her to the tangible laborious farm life, from the country doctor who befriends her to the boy who loved but was forced to leave her.
The callous cruelty of nature, as well as its beauty, is a trademark of Watson’s fiction and is evident in Miss Jane where the author arouses an arduous, unromantic past that tainted with the distress of unattainable loves. The main character’s irrepressible vigor and generous fortitude give her the strength to live her life as she pleases in spite of the limitations that others, and her own body, place on her. Albeit reminiscent of the artist Frida Kahlo, she is a creature who does not inwardly focus on the uncompromising harshness which befalls her. She charms and fascinates those around her with her strength and will.
Through Dr. Thompson and Jane’s father, Watson articulates a tenderness that sits nicely with this piece of work and may derive from being a father himself. Eldred Thompson believes that Miss Jane Chisolm is special character indeed. “Just as the way you are denies you some things, it also gives you license that others may not have,” he tells her. “In my opinion you live on a higher moral ground. I mean to say you are a good person.”
Yet the complexity and drama of Watson’s stunningly written novel here are universal: physical realities can expand us, yet they can also limit us; sometimes heroism lies in fighting our powerlessness, sometimes it comes in mere acknowledgment. A writer of profound emotional depths, Watson does not lie to his reader, so neither does his Jane. She ceases to stop longing for a unity she may never understand, but will also not accept a life of apology or pity.
If looking for hope in a limited society then this novel is an awe-inspiring, not-too-shabby place to begin, and Watson’s writing will keep your intrigue.