The Pequod Review:
What Maisie Knew is one of Henry James's most inventive novels, the story of six-year-old Maisie Farrage, the perceptive daughter of two recently divorced parents who moves back and forth between them in a joint custody arrangement. The parents are deeply selfish and flawed, and the genius of the book is the way James tells the story from the perspective of Maisie, as she tries to make sense of her parents’ hatred and rage, as well broader injustices in the adult world. Maisie’s innocence and bewilderment become ours, and the book establishes real narrative tension as we try to figure out what is happening through the limited perspective of a young child.
This structure also allows the book to explore both Maisie’s psychology and James’s commentary on broader society:
Everything had something behind it: life was like a long corridor with rows of closed doors…. She had learned that at these doors it was wise not to knock — this seemed to produce from within such sounds of derision.
By the time she had grown sharper, she found in her mind a collection of images and echoes to which meanings were attachable - images and echoes kept for her in the childish dusk, the dim closet, the high drawers, like games she wasn't big enough to play.
She had a new feeling, the feeling of danger; on which a new remedy rose to meet it, the idea of an inner self, or, in other words, of concealment. She puzzled out with imperfect signs, but with a prodigious spirit, that she had been a center of hatred and a messenger of insult… Her parted lips locked themselves with a determination to be employed no longer. She would forget everything, she would repeat nothing, and when, as a tribute to the successful application of her system, she began to be called a little idiot, she tasted a pleasure new and keen.
Maisie is one of Henry James’s finest characters, an “interesting small mortal” with innocence and vulnerability, but yet courage and capacity for joy. In his preface to the book, James would say that "the muddled state too is one of the very sharpest of the realities," and he has written an intelligent book about this essential feature of childhood.