Publisher: Faber & Faber
Selected edition: Paperback
No of pages: 624
LONGLISTED FOR THE ORANGE PRIZE FOR FICTION 2012
Jane Harris’s second novel Gillespie and I (longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2012) begins in 1933, when a Miss Harriet Baxter (a woman of independent financial means) begins writing a memoir of her time in Glasgow and, more specifically, her relationship with an artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family.
In 1888, Harriet moves to Glasgow from London in time for the International Exhibition and walking down Buchanan Street one day her first aid training helps save the life of a Mrs Elspeth Gillespie. Elspeth’s son is the up-and-coming painter Ned, with whom Harriet strikes up a friendship. As Harriet’s time in Glasgow goes on, she becomes more involved with Gillespie and his family, amd privy to the intimate details of the family’s life.
As the narrative unfolds, the reader becomes increasingly aware of the tragedies that will strike the Gillespies. Harriet’s memoir is never entirely linear, with comments from different parts of her life interrupting her train of thought (one of her oft-used phrases is “by the bye”, which usually precedes or concludes one of her tangental comments) offering clues as to the fate of the characters. Her scathing remark about another lady’s testimony on the tragedy is somewhat reflective of her own attempts to write her account:
“a doting old woman […] setting down her addled ramblings in a book, as though they were facts”.
In 1933 Harriet is approaching eighty, has become reliant on whisky and sleeping pills to overcome insomnia, and the reader begins to question her mental stability as she becomes paranoid about the intentions of her new housemaid.
The voice of the narrator, Harriet, is incredibly well crafted. She is playful and witty, and not averse to the use salacious gossip for its comedic value, for instance, she confides with the reader her ridiculous opinion of an artist friend of the Gillespies, Walter Peden, unashamedly stating that she had
“reduced him to a tonuge-twister (Peden the Pedant, painter of pets; postulates, prances and pirouettes)”.
Most of the narrative is told in a respectable and propietary way befitting her social position but despite this she never leaves herself misunderstood and is consciously very concise in her version of events. She is, after all, attempting to set the record straight after what she feels are gross misrepresentations of her character after her alleged involvement in an unsettling tragedy concerning the Gillespies.
Even towards the beginning of the novel I found myself questioning Harriet’s motives for involving herself so wholly in the Gillespies’ lives and in particular, her fixation on Ned himself, despite her assertions to his wife Annie that she will never marry as she could never “submit to one of them” and is interested in Ned only for his artwork. The longer her account continues, the more difficult it becomes to ascertain a clear version of events and there were some elements of the novel that recalled Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace for me with its uncertainty and shifting narrative.
I loved the novel’s setting (not surprising given that I am a resident of that dear green place, Glasgow), being able to trace the steps of Harriet and the Gillespies throughout different parts of the city. The novel is very particular about street names and the setting is an integral part of the story, especially during the International Exhibition which brings new flavours and cultures to the city.
One thing that did grate on me a little was some of the use Scottish vernacular; although my initial thoughts were that it was laying on the Scottishness a bit thick, I began to see how it fit in with Harriet’s recent arrival in an alien city. The words “och” and “aye” seemed a little too frequent to begin with, and the “wheesht” (quiet), “guddle” (mess) and “peely-wally” (pale) felt a little too self-conscious. However, these Scottish words and phrases become less frequent as the novel goes on as Harriet herself becomes more acquainted with the area and its language.
I was thoroughly enjoying the book, although I’ll admit that about two thirds of the way through I began to tire of Harriet’s need to give her own account, and her bitter determination to see events through to their end dragged on a little for me. Perhaps that was just indicative of her desire to tell her story after all the time that had elapsed. Things are never certain in the novel – the reader is never sure of her motives, or indeed her feelings towards events and the people involved. There is something slightly cold about her ability to remove herself from events, detaching herself from many of the characters, with the exception of Ned who she perpetually sees as a friend and something of a kindred spirit.
I loved Jane Harris’s writing style – it is intelligent, witty and endowed with a varied vocabulary; rooms are adorned with “garniture”, criminals are “scrofulous” and Harriet is accused of trying to “inveigle” her way into the Gillespie family home. There is a real sense of time and place, and small details (such as the ice cream served in sea shells and Elspeth Gillespie’s love of a good curry) that really bring the novel’s setting to life. It was an entertaining, and at times chilling, novel that plays with the reliability of narrative voice. Gillespie and I is definitely worth reading; it is a book that will transport you back to Victorian Glasgow and leave you wondering about the intentions of Miss Harriet Baxter, a seemingly respectable lady, towards a family with which she becomes closely acquainted.