Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 624 pages; 2012.
One newspaper review described Jane Harris‘s Gillespie and I as “literary crack cocaine” — to which I can only concur. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a novel. It transports you into a strange world of art, deception, troubled families, disturbed children, grumpy housemaids and caged greenfinches, and then takes you on a rollicking good ride that you don’t want to end.
At more than 600 pages, this book — Harris’s second novel — kept me entertained for a fortnight. I had been reading it for so long, toting it around on public transport, reading it in bed and on lunch breaks, that I felt bereft when I came to the last page.
An elderly lady takes us into her confidence
The tale is narrated by Harriet Baxter, a woman of independent means, who wants to set the record straight about her earlier life in Glasgow in 1888. During this time she befriended a struggling artist called Ned Gillespie and became an almost permanent fixture in his family’s household — until something went very wrong with their relationship.
She interleaves this account with her current situation — it is now 1933, she is rather elderly and living in a mansion block in Bloomsbury, London, with two little greenfinches for company — in which she begins to have doubts that her assistant, Sarah, is as trustworthy as she makes out.
Through Harriet’s eyes, we get to experience her take on the world, both as a young woman and as an old lady. She comes across as being very demure, compassionate and friendly, but beneath it all we get glimpses of her innermost thoughts, her eccentricities, and her rather wicked sense of humour. Here, for instance, is how she describes a “slender young woman” she meets for the first time:
From certain angles, she might have been considered a great beauty. The neck was graceful; the features fine. Her eyes were deep blue, almost violet. But there was a hard quality in her face — and something in the breadth and tilt of her jaw — that (unfortunately) put one in mind of a frying pan.
There are lots more little snipes like this throughout the novel, which is one reason why it is such a joy to read. But it also makes it slightly hard to reconcile the public image of Harriet — a Good Samaritan who helps people whenever she can — with the woman who confides so much to us. As one character says towards the end of the book, “I’m not sure what to think any more. I don’t know what to think about anything or anyone, including Harriet Baxter”.
A Victorian novel with a 21st century spin
The book takes the best elements of Victorian fiction — idealised portraits of difficult lives, morality, inherent evil and undertones of a sexual nature — and gives it a fresh slant by throwing in some mystery and a courtroom drama. It’s also hugely evocative of Glasgow in 1888 — Harris has clearly done her homework about the International Exhibition that was held there at the time — but less so of London circa 1933.
It’s all wonderfully paced — and plotted — too, so that you never become bored despite the novel’s length. And the overall atmosphere, while quite cheerful on the surface, is actually quite disturbing and chilling underneath. It’s a brilliant, brilliant read.
Gillespie and I has been nominated for this year’s Orange Prize. It deserves to win it.