Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, Jane Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Observations’ by Jane Harris


Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 544 pages; 2007.

If I was to name a “literary discovery” I made during 2012 it would be British author Jane Harris. I read Gillespie and I back in March and loved it so much it made my top 10 list of books for the year. Her debut novel, The Observations, would have been on that list, too, but I had to narrow down my choices and limiting one book per author seemed a quick and easy way to do that. But there’s not much between these novels — both are delightfully fun reads.

A quirky take on historical fiction

The Observations is set in rural Scotland in 1863 and is narrated by one of the most engaging characters you are ever likely to meet in contemporary literature. Her name is Bessy Buckley — although she has changed it from something else in order to escape her past — and she’s Irish, but has been living in Scotland for four years. (How she came to Scotland and what she has been doing since her arrival are revealed only when Bessy feels comfortable enough to tell you — and that’s a good way into the novel.)

When we first meet Bessy, she is on her way from Glasgow to Edinburgh, where she hopes to find a “new situation” — her last employer, Mr Levy, has died. But she gets diverted enroute and finds herself on a farm known as Castle Haivers, where she meets an intriguing and very beautiful mistress, Arabella Reid, who employs her as an “in and out” girl looking after the house and garden.

But Arabella has strange ways — she also wants Bessy, who can read and write, to keep a journal as a condition of her employment. It is this keeping of the journal that makes The Observations such a quirky take on the traditional maid-and-mistress scenario — through it we learn so much, not only of Bessy’s current life and thought processes, but of Arabella’s weird fascination with the underclass.

An intimate and bawdy voice

The most striking thing about this chunky novel is Bessy’s voice. It’s intimate, bawdy and very honest. She has a wicked sense of humour — for instance, she introduces the stuck-up Reverend Pollock as “Reverend Bollock”, and at a posh dinner party hosted by Arabella she sings a self-composed song “about a man who is afflicted by a severe case of intestinal gas and who is prone to fart in inappropriate places” (hilariously entitled The Wind that Blows down Barrack Street).

She also has a rather mischievous streak that sadly backfires on her in a most alarming way — and it is this turn of events that packs quite a powerful punch. Indeed, for a book that is seemingly a simple tale of a young maid trying to please her employer it is filled with delicious twists and turns that keeps the reader on their toes: you are never quite sure what is going to happen next.

There’s an intriguing undercurrent of menace that runs underneath the storyline (think Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca), but The Observations is mostly a comic tale. Yet Harris balances the humour with moments of poignancy. (Bessy’s back story is particularly tragic — even if she doesn’t realise it — but the sympathy card is never played, which makes it even more sad.)

My only criticism is that the ending is a bit “twee” — all the loose ends are too deftly and neatly tied up — but I can’t stress how much I enjoyed being in Bessy’s lively and entertaining company for the 10 or so days I took to read this. I really can’t wait to see what Harris delivers next.

19 thoughts on “‘The Observations’ by Jane Harris”

  1. I keep hearing great things about Harris – from you, Simon, Harriet – and one day I must read this! I love that you pick out Bessy’s voice as one of the best things here, because that is so important to me – when an author gets a voice just right (it’s the reason I love Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead so much.) Throw in a mention of Rebecca, and I’m completely sold!


  2. Yippee, I did a little bop of joy reading this Kim as Jane is one of my favourite contemporary authors and I think both of her books are utterly wonderful. I think she is incredibly good at narrators with secrets and stories you want to learn, though Bessie and Harriet in her books couldn’t be any more different.
    Beyond thrilled you loved this.


  3. You are welcome to my copy Simon. I bought it second hand so its well thumbed with broken spine etc. but perfectly readable. If you email me your address am happy to put in post for you.


  4. I really enjoyed this too – Bessy’s voice took a little time to get used to but Jane Harris always takes the reader on a rollicking tale.


  5. Ever since listening to Gillespie and I, I have been looking forward to this title too. She does do ‘menacing undercurrent’ so well. Sounds like it would be a great title for audio… but I am yet to find an audio version available to me in Australia.


  6. She’s a great writer, Simon, and I think it’s partly to do with your thoughts on Gillespie and I on your blog that first drew her to my attention — so thanks for that 🙂


  7. I think I loved Bessy’s voice from the outset — I loved how cheeky, raunchy and straightforward she was, with absolutely no air and graces. Her voice is quite similar to the narrator in The Colour of Milk, a book I read last year that also made my Top 10 reads.


  8. I’m afraid I don’t listen to audio books (I get too distracted and want to do other things), but I think it would probably sound terrific provided you got the right actress to play Bessy’s part.


  9. 5 star for this. I must, I must, I must put this book in my TBR and at least read Jane Harris. Coming from you, this sure would be a great read. Thanks for the recommendation.


  10. I also read Gillespie and I last year and it made my top ten along with The Colour of Milk so this has to be a priority read for me this year. Thanks for the tip.


  11. Well, if you liked the voices in those two books — and it sounds like you did, given Gillespie and I made your top 10 — then I think you will love The Observations. Bessy is such a great character!


  12. I read The Observations back when it came out and loved it, but still haven’t managed to actually get around to reading Gillespie and I. I will have to rectify that at some point!


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