Gillespie and I – Jane Harris

‘Gillespie and I’, the long awaited second novel by Jane Harris, is both a readers dream and a book thought/reviewers nightmare. You see somehow I am going to have to (no really, you have to) make you read this and yet somehow tell you very little about it. Yes, this is one of those novels that once read you want to talk to anyone and everyone about it. Yet it’s the very mystery, unease, tension and slowly twisting nature and psychology of the novel that means if you gave away any spoilers everything Jane Harris has set out and greatly achieved would be ruined. But here goes anyway…


From her Bloomsbury home in 1933 aging Harriet Baxter tells us the tale of her beloved friend the artist Ned Gillespie and just how they became friends, after an initial earlier meeting, in May 1888 after saving his mother Elspeth’s life as she chokes on her own dentures at Glasgow’s famous International Exhibition, which Harriet has come to visit after the death of her aunt. Within a few pages of the novel we know that there is tragedy ahead, in fact we know what it is (though I am not telling you here, you need to buy the book) yet we have no idea why it happens or what causes it. You instantly know there is a lot more to this tale than meets the eye, intriguing.

As we read on Harriet slowly but surely gives away hints as to what might be unfolding, there are tensions between members of the family and spouses, secrets between siblings and there is the disturbing nature of Ned’s eldest daughter Sybil. Yet at the same time through Harriet’s narrative and seemingly minor moments, turns of phrase and hazy recollections, Jane Harris starts to make us aware Harriet might not be giving us the whole truth or a slight twist on the events, but why?

“Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? Indeed, one might say, who else is left to tell the tale?”

That is really all I can say on the plot, however if you are a fan of Victorian sensation fiction and those eerie tales from that era then you are going to absolutely love this. Even if you are unfamiliar with that particular genre of book there is so much else to love about ‘Gillespie and I’. One of the things is just how darkly funny the book is. In fact it’s Harriet’s reactions to events both in the 1880’s, one scene involving Ned’s brother Kenneth springs to mind, and in the 1930’s, with a visit to the doctor, which actually had me laughing deeply and rather loudly. Harriet also has a wry, and occasionally literally ‘wicked’, sense of humour and observation. This of course perfectly offsets some of the tension and unease which slowly mounts through the novel.

“’Pteriodomania!’ exclaimed Peden. ‘That dreaded disease.’ He angled his body away from me, in order to address me, sideways, over his shoulder. ‘It seems that when you ladies are weary of novels and gossip and crochet, you find much entertainment in ferns. No doubt you preside over a fern collection, Miss Baxter?’
‘Sadly, no!’ I replied. ‘What with all my novels and gossip and crochet, there’s no time left over for ferns.’
The astute reader will, of course, realise that I was employing irony; but Mr Peden gave a self-satisfied nod – as though I had proven his point.”

I think Harriet Baxter might be one of the most complex narrators I have come across. I think she may also prove to be one of my favourite characters of all time, though what that says about me I am not sure. She is at once hilariously observant and then cruelly witty, she is a complete hypocrite who hates ‘working staff’ because they snoop at the doorways a trait we learn she does often, she is warm and yet slightly cold, she is lonely and needy yet utterly self-obsessed, she is beguiling yet cunning. You’ll come to like her, then wonder if you should, doubt your doubts and then start questioning them again. I think this is masterly writing and I haven’t even started to discuss how vivid and wonderful Jane Harris’ recreations and reimagining’s of Glasgow in the 1880’s and London in the 1930’s are, nor how characters like the devilish seeming Sybil and domineering Elspeth, who laughs whenever she walks into a room for no reason, take hold of the page.

This book will have you guessing the whole way through and just when you think you have figured out how you have been manipulated you realise you are completely wrong. In fact how Jane Harris makes all this happen is beyond me. Like its predecessor, the wonderful ‘The Observations’ (which I am going to have to re-read soon, its one of my favourite books which made me rather nervous about this one), ‘Gillespie and I’ is a book that is all about evoking an atmosphere, wonderful writing, an unforgettable narrator, and those clever twists you never see coming. Yet it is no carbon copy by any stretch of the imagination and stands in its own rite. I loved this book, it’s very easy to find a fault with a book, particularly one at over 500 pages in length, yet there are none I can think of. I would go as far as to say I think ‘Gillespie and I’ could be an almost perfect book and is certainly destined to become one of my favourites. 10/10

This book was kindly sent by the publisher.

This is without doubt my favourite book of 2011 so far. It was one of my most highly anticipated after loving ‘The Observations’ so much and therefore one I was also the most nervous about but its exceeded my expectations. You simply have to read it, and when you have (or if you have already), do come and tell me what you thought. It’s a book I am dying to discuss; it’s also one that after turning the last page I started all over again. What was the last book that you did that with?



Filed under Books of 2011, Faber & Faber, Jane Harris, Review

48 responses to “Gillespie and I – Jane Harris

  1. Louise

    As soon as i had a sniff of this, it went on my wish list, loved her debut, and this book is so me! It’s not out in paperback til next year, so i will have to get it in hardback, unless i wait a bit for it to come in midsize 😉 I love the cover!
    I do re read books, but i’ve so many i want to read, re reading them doesn’t take priority 😦 I think the last time i started all over again would’ve been in my childhood, The Witches and Matilda.

    • Oooh good call with The Witches and Matilda there Louise, I love those books too as a child, in fact they were probably my favourite two Roald Dahl’s!

      Some books I can bear the wait for, this is one that I couldn’t and I am so pleased that it lived upto expectation. It’s just superb.

  2. This is one of my favourite books of the year too. I loved it and was also reminded of Victorian sensation novels. I agree that it was very difficult to review without spoiling the story!

    • It is and do you know what, someone who didnt have the guts to leave a comment on the blog emailed me and said I had spoilt the whole book with these thoughts. I don’t think I have. Part of what I loved was the surprise and the suspense so I wouldnt want to ruin that for anyone else.

  3. I am so glad you loved it. She is a brilliant writer and this is a wonderful novel. Go and get it NOW, everyone.

  4. gaskella

    I enjoyed The Observations very much, and as you’ve given it a 10, it has to go on my wishlist!

    • I didn’t think she could trump The Observations in all honesty, but I was wrong. The Observations has a very special place in my heart but I think this one might be even better. The more space I have had from it the more genius I think it is.

  5. I’m sold! And I have to read The Observations too, naturally:) The premise itself is already intriguing for me. I can’t really stay away from books set in the 30s and especially if it’s a mystery.

    • Well its the modern bit thats in the 1930’s, so its more an additional breakaway narrative, with its own twists, in that era. The main bit is in the 1880’s. If you like a sensational twisty book this is for you though, I think you would like it.

  6. Want it. As soon as you said it was difficult to review (and I saw that great cover), I knew I had to have it. Plus, usually when the bloggers I trust have a difficult time reviewing, it means they enjoyed it. 🙂

    • Hahahaha I am pleased that you see it that way some people would think it was acomplex or ridiculously crazy book so nice to see your positive take on what people could also deem as lazy.

      I hope I haven’t given too much away.

  7. Sue

    This was spoiled for me by a review in a newspaper that gave away too much. It made me buy it but coloured the way I read it – I was watching for things rather than discovering them. But still great for all that and worth reading again now I ‘know’.

    • Yes, Jane has been frustrated with some of the reviews that have given too much away, so I am hoping that this one hasn’t ruined it for anyone.

      Its a great book to read again one ‘you know’ as you say. However I think if I had had it spoilt it would ruin the first read.

  8. Sounds great, Simon. I’ve seen it around and picked it up, but I seem to have gone off historical fiction for a bit, so haven’t been inclined to buy it. I might have to re-think that now, though 😉

    • Its interesting you mention this being historical fiction because, even though its in the 1880’s and 1930’s and evokes the atmosphere, I never thought of it as historical fiction. Isnt that odd?

      Anyways give it a whirl.

  9. Jenny

    Well, you convinced me!

  10. EllenB

    I can’t get this in the US yet, and Book Depository is out so I just ordered The Observations. I believe I will be thanking you for the recommendation!

    • I didn’t realise there was a delay on this in the US, I forget that some books might not have sold to a US publisher, though I would be surprised if this one didn’t.

      The Observations is stunning in a different way so I am sure you will enjoy it.

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  13. I can’t remember the last time I was SO excited to read a book as this! I indulged in a hardcopy for myself to take on holiday. Cannot wait to read it 🙂

    • I have been that excited about this book. Its been in catalogues since last spring so I have been being teased by that. Its lovely to treat yourself to a special book in hardback now and again.

  14. Nicola Smith

    I’ve just read this and enjoyed it. However, I’m puzzled by the end and think I missed something to do with the painting that is mentioned (The Studio?). Can anybody enlighten me please? I couldn’t wade back through the whole of the book to find out.

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  17. Bravo for such an excellent review! I couldn’t agree more. I don’t think you spoilt it for anyone – although I can see that some of the reviews I’ve read elsewhere might influence how the reader (or the Reader) viewed the book as they read it. I ordered it from the library because I heard it was set in Glasgow, and I work in Glasgow so I was a relative innocent!

    I loved it, I sat up until 2 am this morning desperate to finish it and find out what happened. I quite liked Harriet too, I quite like how it’s up to me (in a sense) to decide what really happened, although there are a couple of almost throwaway lines that almost seals Harriet’s fate.

    It makes me want to go out at lunchtime and visit all the spots that Harriet visits. One thing, the place where Elspeth chokes on her dentures is outside the Argyll Arcade on Buchanan Street, opposite Frasers…I might have to go and stand there…

    But if this is not shortlisted for the Booker at least, it would be travesty. I must track down The Observations.
    But it’s also brilliantly written and paced

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  23. Jack

    This is an absolutely gripping read, and imagine my frustration when my Kindle froze and I have to wait till the new one arrives to find out the end when I’m three quarters of the way through! I was originally a bit put off by the rather prissy beginning, but my goodness it draws you in, and the trial and the remarks about Harriet from others were very telling…anyway, if you’re wondering…STOP. READ IT!!

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  36. I’m a bit late to chime in, Simon, but I just finished Gillespie and I and am sitting here stunned. What. A. Book. My last “Simon” book was The Bees, which I really, really enjoyed, but this one even more perfect for me. I lost sleep when I couldn’t stop reading. Now I’m going to lose sleep as I try to work out what really happened. Thank you for recommending this one!! Next up…The Children of Dynmouth, which I’m reasonably certain was one of your recommendations.

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