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 in 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 en route 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 keep 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.

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

‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris


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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Polygon, Publisher, Robin Jenkins, Scotland, Setting

‘A Very Scotch Affair’ by Robin Jenkins


Fiction – paperback; Polygon; 191 pages; 2005.

The late Robin Jenkins is a Scottish author, best known for his 1955 novel The Cone Gatherers. But up until last November I had never heard of him. It was only while browsing in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh that I chanced upon A Very Scotch Affair, first published in 1968, and liked the sound of the plot — a man stuck in a miserable marriage decides to leave his wife even though she’s been diagnosed with cancer — and bought it on the spot.

Now, having read it, and laughed along with it, been angered by it, and wept over it, I want to rush out and buy all of Jenkins’ back catalogue, which supposedly runs to 30 works of fiction, although not all of them remain in print. If A Very Scotch Affair is indicative of his talent, then the man surely is a genius. In fact, the late Scottish nationalist Sir Compton Mackenzie described him as the “most outstanding novelist that Scotland has produced since the war” and even BBC journalist Andrew Marr has weighed in with this claim on the blurb: “If you are interested in books that are humane and wise, not slick and cynical, then treat yourself this year to some Robin Jenkins”.

The book is set in Glasgow in the 1960s. It feels profoundly Scottish, not just because of the strong sense of place but by several of the characters who speak in dialect.

It opens on a dark, snowy January afternoon, and Mungo Niven, an insurance collector with a socialist streak, is in a tearoom with his lover, Myra, discussing their adulterous relationship and the possibility of running away to Spain. But there’s something holding Mungo back, despite the fact he clearly detests his wife of 24 years, Bess, whom he describes as “fat, gluttonous, unimaginative, and, in the dark, lecherous”.

“As I’ve said before, Mungo, your wife degrades you.”
Yes, it was true, Bess did degrade him, wilfully. All their married life she, who never read a book herself, had sought to stultify his every intellectual ambition.
“Your children will go their own ways soon enough. Why sacrifice yourself any longer on their account? They certainly won’t thank you for it. Yes, Mungo, the time’s come when you must escape.”

And so, by the time Mungo returns to his dingy little house in Minden Street that he shares with Bess and their children — university student Andrew, 20; sixth-former Peggy, 18; and Billy, 11 — he’s made up his mind to leave that very night. Even when Peggy reveals that Bess is not well, that she’s been complaining about a severe pain in her stomach, he’s still plotting his escape route.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without revealing crucial spoilers, but let’s just say it explores how Mungo’s decision affects everyone in his immediate family.

However, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Jenkins offers a drip feed of information, slowly revealing the strengths and weakness of all his characters, so nothing is ever black and white. This makes it difficult to form judgements about who is in the wrong and who is in the right.  Should Mungo, and his strong conscience and weak willed desire, be condemned for his decision? Is Bess to blame for their seemingly one-sided marriage? Where do the children fit in, particularly Andrew who has his own relationship problems with which to contend? And what of Bess’s loyal siblings, and her friend, Florence McTaggart, who is so bitterly opposed to Mungo that she petitions everyone in the neighbourhood to cast him out as a villian?

This is a wonderfully realistic exploration of the far-reaching consequences of a private scandal made public. That Mungo has dreams far beyond his upbringing in a Glasgow ghetto and waits so long to put anything into action speaks volumes. That his overweight, over-cheerful wife does everything to keep him in the dull domesticity to which he’s become accustomed also says much about her character.

Jenkins writes all this with a lightness of touch, even though much of the subject matter is as dark and depressing as the city and the time in which the book is set. He has an uncanny ability to make even the blackest situations quite comic. There’s a wicked streak of humour running throughout the entire story that made me laugh and wince at the same time.

A Very Scotch Affair is a tragicomedy about love, betrayal, conscience and desire. It was my first Robin Jenkins novel; it won’t be my last.