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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: masterful deception [book review]

I picked up Gillespie and I by Jane Harris in an airport bookshop, hoping it would keep me so engrossed I wouldn’t notice the length of the flight.  I thought ticked two of the right boxes: nineteenth-century setting and a sense of mystery

The story reminded me of Willkie Collins’ sensation and mystery stories and is told at a similar fast pace. It’s narrated by Harriet Baxter, a spinster approaching her 80th birthday, who recalls a chance encounter 45 years previously with Ned Gillespie. He is a talented artist who, we are soon informed, died before his fame was fully recognised. Harriet meets him again during a visit to the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888 – and quickly becomes close friends with the Gillespie family.

Dark shadows hover over their somewhat Bohemian home as one of the daughters begins to behave in an alarmingly malicious way towards her sibling and other members of the household. And then Harriet finds herself propelled into a family tragedy and a notorious court case.

The period atmosphere was convincing. Harriet’s recollections of the past come with lots of detail about  houses, dresses, domestic routines as well as the atmosphere of the exhibition ground.  Unlike many other novels with historical settings, Harris’ manages to avoid dialogue that feels flat and clunky with anachronisms.

The key to this novel however lies not in what we are told but more in what we are not told. First person narrators in novels are frequently unreliable witnesses or interpreters. Harriet Baxter isn’t simply unreliable, she is a master of deception.

She portrays herself as a generous-hearted person yet is prone to make waspish comments about the other women in the Gillespie household. She believes herself to be uniquely positioned to  tell the truth about the unrecognised genius of Ned Gillespie.

It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie. Who, if not me, was dealt that hand? Indeed, one might say, who else is left to tell the tale? Ned Gillespie: artist, innovator, and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate.

She also claims to have privileged insight into the man’s character and his artistic prowess.

I learned to understand Ned – not simply through what he said – but also through his merest glance. So profound was our rapport that I was, on occasion, the first to behold his completed paintings, sometimes before his wife Annie had cast her gaze upon them.

But the reader comes to question her intention to “set the record straight” about the artist and the events in which she was enmeshed as a young. Harriet is however a tease of a narrator, often just giving hints rather than full explanations. One of her frequent tricks is to make dark allusions to tragedies yet to be revealed.  “If only we had known then what the future held in store,” she says early on.

Harriet Baxter is so skilled in the art of hints and suggestions that the only way the reader does in fact get to know what really occurred is by following the breadcrumb trail of those clues and by reading between the lines. By the end, you almost feel that you have to read it again for everything to fall into place.

If I had a gripe with the novel it lay in the ending. It didn’t so much end as just seem to peter out as if it had run out of steam. I didn’t feel cheated because the novel had done exactly what I needed it to do – keep me engaged so I didn’t notice the cramped and confined conditions of my journey. But I did expect it to come to some form of a resolution.

Now, with the benefit of a few months gap, I can see that instead of this being a weakness of the novel, it was in fact one of its strengths. Joanne Harris, like her narrator, is an arch manipulator, leading me through the labyrinth of her novel and making me believe that all would be revealed. But like Harriet Baxter, she left me to work out the truth.

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: Endnotes

About the Book: Gillespie and I was published by Faber and Faber in 2011 and was well received by reviewers. The Times’ critic described it as “a compelling, suspenseful and highly enjoyable novel.” It was long listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction (now reincarnated as The Women’s Prize For Fiction) the following year. It lost out to The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht.

About the Author: Jane Harris was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, and spent her early childhood there before her parents moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in 1965. After university she tried a variety of careers, working abroad variously as a dishwasher, a waitress, a chambermaid and an English language teacher. She started to write short stories during this period while confined to bed in Portugal with a bout of flu. She went on to undertake an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia then completed a PhD at the same university. The Observations was her first published novel. Gillespie and I was her second. She published her third novel Sugar Money in 2017.

This review was posted originally in 2012. This is an updated version which incorporates biographical information about the author and an updated image of the book cover . Paragraphs of text have been shortened to improve readability.

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