‘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?