My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s no wonder Watson’s latest novel was nominated for the National Book Award. Watson presents us with compelling characters whose lives explore contemporary issues in a setting of historical fiction. The title character, Jane is born in the early 20th century with a birth defect that leaves her incontinent and unable to have children or maintain normal social relations. We see her from the day she is born and follow her and her family into adulthood as they struggle with and adapt to the implications of her condition. She cannot stay in school, yet she is bright enough to be able to learn on her own how to read and do math. She is naturally curious about herself and about her sexuality, though she is unable to fully explore that side of her life. She is intensely aware of the fertile life on her Mississippi farm, and seems more in tune with life than many around her as she accepts the body she was born with.
Watson’s portrayal of the character based on his own great-aunt is warm and sympathetic, even as his understanding of the family dynamics and the struggles Jane’s parents and sister must go through. His portrayal of rural life in Mississippi in the 1920’s and 1930’s is spot-on and a significant part of the value of this book. The relationships of men and women who work on the farm, the struggles to eek out a living from the soil during hard times, and the bone-wearying life of a country doctor, perhaps Jane’s greatest and most lasting friend, serve as the perfect foil for her own struggles and add to the rich portrayal of Southern country life.
Miss Jane is not always an easy read, as it takes on difficult issues of gender and race, yet we are much the wiser for it.