Back in 2006, I read a little novel called The Observations, by Jane Harris. I never reviewed it, but I remember enjoying it very much. When the opportunity came to read and review her newest book, Gillespie and I, I jumped at the chance. I knew from experience, having read her first book, that Harris was a very interesting author and that I admired her writing ability and her ability to do the unexpected.
Gillespie and I only served to cement this opinion for me. Boy howdy, can this woman write.
It is 1933. Harriet Baxter is an English spinster pushing her 80s. Sitting alone at her home in Bloomsbury, with only her two pet finches for company, she decides she will write her memoirs. She wants to recount her friendship with Ned Gillespie, a forgotten painter from Glasgow, whom she believes never received the fame and appreciation he deserved before he tragically died with realizing his potential. She has decided to set the record straight, as it were, as she is the best one to do so, being the only one left.
In 1888, Harriet traveled to Glasgow for an International Exhibition. Her maiden aunt has died, leaving her at loose ends and being one of the few women on this time who is independently wealthy, Harriet has an unexpected freedom and takes advantage of it. Many artists displayed their works, one of whom was Ned Gillespie. Harriet meets Ned and the rest of his family there and befriends Ned, his wife, his mother, and his children. She inveigles herself into their lives and believes she is as dear to them as they are to her.
Yet, when tragedy strikes, and Harriet is blamed, things begin to unravel. Nothing is as it seems. Is Harriet a reliable narrator? Being the only one left, is she telling the true version of events or what she wants us to know? Is she responsible for tearing a lovely and endearing family to shreds? Did she do what she was accused of doing?
I don’t know if I’d said it here before, but I almost always adore unreliable narrators. I know they drive some people crazy, but I love love LOVE how books like this make me think. They stay with me for ages, making me question what really happened, what certain things meant, how DID it END. I also adore ambivalent endings and this book has one of the best ambivalent endings I’ve ever read. I reached a point, about 2/3rds through the book, when I reached a point where I just could not put it down and I sped through the last 200 pages in about 3 hours. At one point, I realized my heart was racing (and I should also say it was about 4 in the morning) because I was SO anxious about what was going to happen.
I stand in awe of Ms. Harris. She managed to take what feels like 3 separate story lines and weaves them together so deftly and so seamlessly. If I ever wrote a book, I would want to write something like that. Something taunt and exciting, curious and new, end of your seat, keep you up late at night, and not let you go even after the last page was turned hours, days, weeks ago. Plus, it’s very Victorian. I can not wait to see what she comes up with next.
About Jane Harris
Jane Harris is the author of the award-winning novel The Observations. She lives in London.
Paperback: 528 pages
Publisher: Harper Perennial (January 31, 2012)
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