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.

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2012

Books-of-the-yearAs the year draws to a close, it’s time to choose my favourite reads of 2012.

Until I sat down to do this task, I would have described the past 12 months as a fairly average reading year.  I read a lot of books I awarded four stars and several that I thought worthy of five stars, but there were few that really stood out in the memory. And yet, when I went back through my archives, I recalled so many fabulous books that I began to find it hard to narrow it down to just 10 titles.

Without further ado, here’s what made the cut. The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s surname. Hyperlinks take you to my original review.


The Pilgrimage by John Broderick (1961)

I loved this book for its insights into human nature, its political and social commentary, its spotlight on hypocrisy in the Church and people’s spiritual obsessions — all told in such a simple, crisp prose style and at a surprisingly gripping pace.


Plainsong by Kent Haruf (2001)

Plainsong is a beautiful, sincere story about real people with complicated, messy lives — and I loved every single carefully chosen word of it.


Gillespie and I by Jane Harris (2011)

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.


The Devil I Know by Claire Kilroy (2012)

The Devil I Know, came out in the summer and I greedily gulped it down in a matter of days. It is an extraordinarily funny satire about the recent collapse of the Irish economy — and certainly the best Irish book I read all year.


The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon (2012)

The Colour of Milk is a truly compelling book because Mary’s voice is so urgent and authentic. And the ending, which is shocking, unexpected and heart-breaking, is the kind that makes you gasp out loud — and then you want to have a big sob.


Fly Away Peter by David Malouf (1999)

This is a truly beautiful and devastating story set before and during the Great War. I read it in two sittings and felt stunned by the sheer power and emotion that Malouf wrings from just 144 pages of eloquently written prose.


The Lighthouse by Alison Moore (2012)

I loved that from such a tiny package — the book is less than 200 pages and can be comfortably read in a handful of sittings — Moore has crafted a delightful, tightly crafted and incredibly suspenseful story.


Everybody Has Everything by Katrina Onstad (2012)

It is so filled with home truths — about relationships, friends, family and society — that if you don’t recognise yourself within these pages you will see someone else you know, perhaps a friend, a sibling or work colleague.


The Imposter Bride
by Nancy Richler (2012)

I loved the detailed world that Richler creates here — her characters are wonderfully alive, flawed and judgemental, but also hard-working, determined and independent. Her prose style is clean and elegant, and she has a terrific ear for dialogue so it feels like you are eavesdropping on real-life conversations.


Heaven and Hell by Jón Kalman Stefánsson (2011)

Heaven and Hell is a powerful story about friendship, redemption, despair and the ocean. It was an unexpected delight to read it and certainly the most enchanting book I have read this year. It deserves a wide audience.

Have you read any from this list? Or has it encouraged you to try one or two? Care to share your own top 10?

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.