Saturday, May 19, 2012

Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris

Faber and Faber, 2011 (UK)
502 pp

Exasperatingly enough, Gillespie and I is one of those books where saying too much gives away the show, a potential buzzkill for anyone who may want to read it.  I bought this book last summer from the UK, having read a little about it in various threads re last year's Booker Prize speculations (and because I had enjoyed her The Observations ),  but I had no idea what I was getting into once I started reading.  So I'll keep quiet about what happens in this novel for anyone who may be interested in reading it.  I won't even tell my real-life book friends who  want to borrow it -- the lips are zipped.  So here is a basic outline but I'll leave it to you to read this most superbly-crafted, delightful novel on your own. Just don't miss it, despite the 500+ pages -- it reads very quickly and hooks you from the outset.

The story is narrated by an elderly Harriet Baxter, looking back from 1933 to events in her life from 1888 through 1890.  In Glascow, through a random event, she becomes friends with the family of Ned Gillespie, whom Harriet calls "a man of indisputable talent, but a man hampered by circumstance and responsibility." As a painter, Ned stood outside the privileged circle of artists
"notoriously prone to snobbism, and nowhere more cliquish than Scotland, wherein most established artists were possessed of wealth, an Edinburgh heritage, and a first-rate education,"
many of whom were exhibiting their work at the International Exhibition.  Ned is the proverbial struggling artist, with a family to support: his wife Annie (also an artist),  two young daughters Sybil and Rose; the family  has a small business that is managed  by Ned's brother Kenneth, who has his own personal issues as well.   Harriet believes in Ned as an artist and decides to do what she can to help him, going to her stepfather Ramsay (collector of inventions that don't seem to work) to help in publicizing Ned's work.  He isn't so keen on the idea, but does allow Harriet money for a commissioned portrait.   Harriet decides Annie should do it, and  she decides to lengthen her stay in Glasgow for the purpose. Soon Harriet is a regular household fixture at the Gillespies; she plays with the two children, helps Annie around the house, talks to Ned about his art, etc. etc.  She's there when the older of the two girls, Sybil, begins to exhibit bizarre behavior (painting pictures of penises on the wall, for a start) and  she's also around when a terrible tragedy strikes the household.   Her account of her Glasgow years are interwoven with her current life as an elderly spinster with only two little birds for companions, along with the housekeeper (who doubles as fact checker, etc., for Harriet's memoirs) Sarah. 

So, you may ask -- why is this scenario special? Aren't there a number of books in which the past is related through the eyes of the characters some years later? Well, it is precisely what I'm not saying that gives this book its edge, and far be it from me to spoil it.  At the very beginning, in the preface, the reader is told by Harriet that she has waited quite a long time to set pen to paper, needing to put some distance between herself and a "sequence of profoundly affecting events, none the least of which was that Ned...took his own life."  From that sentence on, you enter Harriet's mind, a very strange place indeed. At first you may feel like you're in some routine period piece set in Victorian Scotland, but it will not be long before you may notice an inexplicable, deep sense of unease starting to creep up on you, compelling you to keep turning pages until it's all over. 

Gillespie and I  is an inventive and ingenious novel, taking you quickly back into Victorian-era Scotland where you immediately become enmeshed in the characters' lives; at the same time it tends to turn your sense of perception on its head.   It is very well paced, extremely readable and deliciously plotted, with equal levels of suspense and disquietude which grow as the story progresses.  Jane Harris is an awesome writer, and I hope she returns with something equally as good very soon.  I absolutely loved this captivating book, and I can very highly recommend it.

sidebar: I read this book on a plane from Seattle to Phoenix and then from Phoenix to Ft. Lauderdale. I hate flying, but was so caught up in this one that I forgot where I was! 


  1. Hi Nancy! This is next up on my outstanding reviews list, and I have been procrastinating wondering how to write a review that does this wonderful novel justice without giving away too much - you have picked the perfect balance.

    1. Hi Jo! Thanks! I struggled with it for quite a while, wrote it, and then checked other reviews ... mine, I think, says very little in the way of a spoiler. I'll definitely be looking your way when you've written yours.

      I'm going through the same thing with Helen Dunmore's The Greatcoat right now...tough call.

  2. Nancy, any book that can capture your attention whereby you forget the long plane ride is good for me. Kidding aside, your review was compact giving away no plotlines but just enough to make me curious. I just finished a book I very much disliked, so am a bit envious of your total enjoyment! ....thanks from, n@ncy

    1. Hi! Forgetting I'm on a plane is no easy feat, believe me. I carefully plan what my plane read is going to be -- it has to be engrossing enough to stop worrying about turbulence. I hate turbulence. I had started it the night before the flight and knew this was the one. Judging by your book choices, you may also enjoy it!


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