Jane Harris’s debut novel The Observations was my pick for 2006’s book of the year, a smart, snappy historical novel set in Victorian-era Scotland whose colorful cast of characters was simultaneously eccentric and thoroughly believble. The novel’s narrator, Bessy Buckley, possessed an uncommonly appealing verve and a no-nonsense worldview—in a word, a voice—that earned her comparisons to a Victorian Holden Caulfield. The book was justly acclaimed, earning critical accolades and, perhaps inevitably, raising expectations for Harris’s follow-up novel to levels that were stratospherically high.
Now that follow-up novel is here, and it contains significant pleasures of its own. Although Bessy’s sassy, knowing voice is absent from these proceedings, Gillespie and I offers another engaging narrator, one Harriet Baxter, whose friendship with struggling Glaswegian painter Ned Gillespie forms the main storyline of this book.
Ned lives in Glasgow with his family—wife Annie, wacky mother Elspeth, and young daughters Sibyl and Rose. Through a chance encounter with the women of the household one day, Harriet manages to save Elspeth’s life and so bring her daily activities into the orbit of the Gillespie family. For much of the first half of the novel, this relationship dominates the proceedings. Against the backdrop of the ongoing Glasgow Exhibition, Ned struggles for artistic success and recognition (which would bring badly-needed income into the household) while steadfast and longsuffering wife Annie tends his needs, and those of their children, as best she can.
Mixed with all this domestic drama, however, are intimations of something more complex, more compelling and a good bit more sinister. Much of this revolves around the Gillespie’s young daughter Sibyl, a precocious girl whose propensity for mischief becomes increasingly worrisome. Misbehavior leads to pranks, pranks lead to malevolence, and malevolence eventually comes to a head in a turn of events both tragic and shocking. The good news, at this point the reader is barely halfway through the book, and it’s just starting to get complicated.
Readers familiar with The Observations may feel a degree of disappointment (as I did) that Harriet Baxter is, initially at least, a somewhat less entertaining narrator than Bessy Buckley. Readers should resist the temptation to compare: Harris judges her protagonist’s voice perfectly, and it’s unreasonable to expect an Englishwoman of moderate means to share the cadences and vocabulary, not to mention the attitudes and sass, of an unschooled Scottish teenager.
Moreover, Harris wields Harriet’s voice as effectively as she did Bessy’s, using it to weave a net that thoroughly draws the reader into the action. In fact, so deeply is the reader entangled in the proceedings that it comes as quite a shock when a perfectly timed, and perfectly startling, twist crops up halfway through the book. The success of this twist is dependent on the ordinariness of Harriet’s reportage thus far.
This isn’t to say that Harriet is dull. Far from it—her voice is by turns critical, stuffy, meddlesome, self-righteous, self-effacing, coy, judgmental and darkly comic. Of a painter friend of Ned’s she remarks, “the man was bored out of his wits, which made him more tiresome and gossipy than he might ordinarily have been. It occurred to me that what he really needed was a wife: but he was so awkward in his dealings with women that the prospect of matrimony seemed unlikely.” Elsewhere, she tells us that “by keeping an eye on Ned’s brother, I might see where he went, and perhaps discover his secret, whatever it might be. Praemonitus, praemunitus, as they say.” Yes, well maybe she says that, but no one else I know does.
The second half of the novel, after the twist (or more properly, the series of twists and revelations) mentioned above, proceeds as swiftly as the first half did deliberately. Laws have been broken, and an investigation is initiated to find out the truth behind terrible events; it would take a cold-hearted reader to remain unconcerned. One does not need to be a fan of courtroom drama or John Grisham-type thrillers to get caught up in the increasingly convoluted proceedings. These events will cause the reader to rethink every event in the story so far; as always with an effective twist in the plot, a light is shined over preceding events that throws them into unexpected relief.
Harris’s structure adds to the reader’s (pleasurable) disorientation. Besides the 1880s storyline, there is a second set of episodes in 1933, also narrated by Harriet, which at first appears unconnected to the main storyline, but which grows closer as the plot advances. Not until the book’s final pages do the disparate threads collide, in a satisfyingly violent manner.
This is not a novel for readers looking for a fast pace or a quick read. It ain’t The Hunger Games and doesn’t aim to be; its pleasures are slower to build, though arguably longer lasting, as a result. Harriet Baxter is the kind of complex, multilayered heroine who inhabits classic stories, and this book just might be one. We’ll have to wait for posterity to sort that one out. In the meantime, we have the considerable pleasure of settling back and listening to her story.