Happily for my creative juices, the only reasonably warm place in the house right now is huddled next the radiator in what we like to call ‘Lucy’s room’, my retreat from the disruptive noises and smells of the outside world where I can really get down to some proper blogging. Given the circumstances, I thought it was time I wrote some kind of book review….remember them?
Last year, Jane Harris’ second novel, Gillespie and I, officially became the book I was too scared to read. Would I like it too much? Too little? All the key components were there; 19th century, Scotland, strong female character, what wasn’t there to like? With all the rave reviews out there failure seemed impossible. So I denied myself for almost two years after going to hear Harris speak at Waterstones back in 2011. I finally took the plunge on our Hebridean mini-holiday last summer only to emerge blinking into the sunlight feeling completely bewildered and unsure what to think. It’s only now with a bit of space that I’ve been able to make sense of whether I really loved this book or not. Boy did I want to love it….
Harriet Baxter is an elderly woman living alone with her songbirds, sad memories and paranoia. The memoirs we read within this novel are her account of the intimate life and times of Scottish artist Ned Gillespie and his small family; a family Harriet had the fortune (or misfortune, we may discover) to meet by chance when staying up in Glasgow, the bosom of which she remains in for many months to come. Using the famed Glasgow International Exhibition as the rich setting for Harriet’s drama, we witness the gradual disintegration of the lives and sanity of those she has come to know and love, culminating in, horror of horrors, a full-blown criminal trial.
After much a musing I have come to the firm conclusion that, after hearing masses and masses about this novel from various quarters, I built it so far up in my mind that anything short of perfection was always going to be a disappointment.
Jane Harris is a wonderful writer and this plot-heavy tale with its emotive nuances, juxtaposed with the shock-factor of the final court scenes kept me hooked from start to finish. This is an imaginative, completely unique tale that really can’t be compared with anything else I have ever read or even heard of, told by a seemingly intelligent, forward thinking young Victorian woman, complete with her huge foibles and failures.
Therein lies my problem. Although Harris is wonderfully clever with her narrator (the most unreliable I have ever encountered); who paints herself as the Gillespie family’s guardian angel and whose primary hobby seems to be sweeping undesirable truths under the carpet, she was, when all is said and done, really rather irritating.
Who cares? You might say. Well, ordinarily I might find such a carefully constructed, busybody character such as Harriet deeply convincing and satisfyingly disturbing however, the obsessive/possessive nature of her relationship with ‘her artist’ simply didn’t convince me. As a character Ned Gillespie seemed rather indifferent to her presence and much more likely to throw the woman out of his home than allow her to become so close with his family. Obsessive love and psychosis can make for a splendid novel but, for all Harriet’s acerbic wit and grand sweeping assertions, something felt amiss for me and I really am sorry for it.
One certainty, however, is that Jane Harris possesses the incredibly powerful skills to confuse, confound and mesmerise. This is an intelligent novel that offers us no easy answers and, in a way, they are the best because surely it is literature’s job to make us sit back, think, and not take anything or anybody for granted. True, I had several crises of faith throughout but, if this is a true reflection of Harris’ skills then her first novel; The Observations, really does need to be next on my list.
Glasgow Skyline by Gavin White via Flickr