Reading Journal 001: Nina LaCour’s WATCH OVER ME

Warning: reading journal entries contain plot spoilers!

After I started reading Watch Over Me and talked about it to my girlfriend, I was in the middle of talking about it when I suddenly realised: I have not read the blurb. (It’s Nina LaCour, so… insta-buy for me.)

If I had, I’d have known going in that this was a literal ghost story — I’m sort of glad that I didn’t. It came as a delicious, unsettling surprise; both for the protagonist, Mila, and for me. Well. Far more delicious for me than for her, to be fair. (I’m just going to assume that the lot of you are more diligent about readin’ your blurbs, so I won’t consider this spoilers yet.) I wonder at the terrible secret in Mila’s past, the horrible thing she did; the fire. Was that her fault, her doing? Or was it Blake? Is it true that they were living in the burnt-out husk of a house? Even knowing that LaCour likes to peel back these layers slowly and all in good time, and that she will, eventually, make the facts plan; I am impatient. I want to know. That’s a good start.

I’ve finished the novel at the point of this writing, so this is more retrospective than my other reading journal entries.

There’s such  longing in Mila — to be loved, to be part of a family again: to be able to trust those she’s been entrusted to. But most of all, she so desperately wants to be good, in the most literal sense of the word. Her want for praise is not for pride, it is for want of being told she can do good, be good, be a good girl. A good person.

More than the bad thing she’d done, so many years before.

More than anything she wants to help, to make the lives of those around her better.

Mila has ghosts — everyone who comes to the farm does, and not everyone can be healed by the farm, by the ghosts in the field. The ghosts are moments, suspended in time: innocence once possessed, now lost. Mila sees herself at the last moments that she was happy. Before. Before her mother made a dreadful mistake.

The ghost story is so intricately woven: this is a Gothic tale perhaps in its purest form. There’s no hint of gaslighting at the farm, but the skeleton house reeks of it by sheer contrast; of Blake telling her that she’s not really seeing anything, and denying months later the things he told her himself, and then bringing her mother in on the cruel joke.

At the farm, then, you either see the ghosts or you don’t, but any notion of ‘crazy’ is firmly rejected. The farm shows you what you need.

So Mila can trust her eyes, yes, but she cannot trust her memories, her dreams: they intrude upon the world, the real world, with such force that they become real. The blood on her foot, on her ears: it’s real. So the reader may not question the other things that appear, may not make the connection, may not see the guilt until it is nearly too late.

It is almost too late.

There is betrayal in these pages, but it is born of a love that is true and good: the discovery of Lee’s actions is miserable, and shocking, and for a moment I feared possession or something worse. But it wasn’t. It was a child’s love, someone who wants to help as much as Mila, and a well-meant lesson being taken too much to heart. Being carried out because Mila forgot that wanting to help, to heal, can be a two-way street.

In the end, Mila receives her gold bracelet — but it is not a shackle. She is not a prisoner. The ending is a contented, if not a happy one — though perhaps being such as it is, it is happy — but it is also somewhat open. Mila wonders what else there might yet come, and that’s an unsettling thought, but although she lied that night. I do believe she is ready now, to face it all head-on.

With her family.

Quotes and moments that stood out to me

Seeing Jackson’s pronouns normalised and respected is such a good, small way of instilling trust. It absolutely put my mind at ease about whatever role Terry and Julia would play further on into the story. This simple (yet, in our world, still contested) thing made me trust them.

What Mila said at the beginning bears out:

“All I’m saying is it would have been easier had I known.”

Watch Over Me, p. 9

There is a frisson of longing and desire in Mila’s interactions with Liz and Billy, but especially Liz. It’s under her gaze that Mila blushes, and it’s Liz who gets closest to her, physically and emotionally.

Mila gives most of her past and her pain to Lee, her student, and he to her. But the weeks she spends sharing Liz and Billy’s bed are filled with light, and some desire, albeit unspoken and tucked away, past Mila’s initial reaction to overhearing Liz and Billy in the cabins. Although the novel doesn’t explore it fully — the suggestions are clear enough, and Mila was in no way ready for any kind of romantic relationship — there is plenty to dream about.

Mila’s high?

“Found I love them almost more than I could bear.”

Watch Over Me, p. 261

When no-one comes forward to claim her against her will. When they wait.

Her low?

“We don’t need you right now.”

Watch Over Me, p. 161

When they become strangers who pretended to love her — for wanting to protect her from what she wasn’t ready yet to see, to understand.

Terry apologises to her later, and it shocks Mila that his eyes fill with warmth when he does — for her.

“‘I live surrounded by ghosts. I sleep in your bed. I love Lee and I’m as good to him as I know how to be. What else do I need to do?’”

‘Mila.’ Liz pulled me close. She pressed her lips against my cheek and my heart gave me away. […] To be touched like this, to be kissed by her.”

Watch Over Me, p. 167

This moment is when I truly understood Mila’s want to be good. Her wanting to belong, to find out how many more tests she would have to pass before being let in on the big secret. To become one of them. She does not believe them when they tell her she already is, with such stark evidence that she is not, not yet.

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