BOOK REVIEW: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I by Jane HarrisGillespie and I
By Jane Harris
Completed March 24, 2012

Oh Jane Harris – you masterful storyteller. You captivated me with your debut novel, The Observations, to the point that I could barely wait to read your sophomore effort, Gillespie and I. I worried that you couldn’t “do it again” – but as I delved into your new book, my worries quickly vanished. Oh yes, you did it again. And marvelously so.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because I don’t want to spoil one thing for future readers. In a quick summary, the story is about Harriet Baxter, a middle-aged, unmarried English woman who takes up residence in Scotland during the 1888 International Exhibition. There, she befriends the artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family: his wife, Annie; Ned’s mother, Elpsbeth; and Ned and Annie’s children, Sibyl and Rose. As the story progresses, a terrible tragedy strikes the Gillespie family, and Harriet is thrust into the brink of it.

As we learn about Harriet’s life in 1888, Harris mixes in Harriet’s narrative as an older woman, living in 1933 London. Harriet is writing her memoir but vexed by her live-in companion, Sarah. Why is Sarah so quiet? Why does she not talk about her past? Why does she dress head to toe in Victorian clothing when the styles are much more liberal?

Gillespie and I is a book much like a roller coaster. The first half is full of foreshadowing, with small twists and turns that seem insignificant as you read them. Then, at the end of the first half, the story seems to stall a bit, but I liken it to the “scenic part” of the roller coaster ride – when you’re up high and can enjoy the view before being plunged down at break-neck speeds. And the second half of the book is the downward plunge, and you’re left holding on, turning each page, almost not believing what you’re reading. When the book is over, just like a good roller coaster, you get off and contemplate going for another ride. You want to relive the whole experience and discover things you missed on the first ride.

I’ve said enough – go get your copy of Gillespie and I and prepare for a literary ride that will leave you breathless, contemplative and thoroughly pleased. (  )

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BOOK REVIEW: The Observations by Jane Harris

The Observations by Jane HarrisThe Observations
By Jane Harris
Completed September 11, 2011

The Observations is the story of young Bessy Buckley- a 15-year-old Irish prostitute-turned-maid who stumbles in to a Scottish manor called Castle Haivers. Escaping her past, she convinces the mistress of the house, Arabella Reid, to take her on as a maid, despite shady skills or references.  Bessy’s tenure begins very strangely as Arabella has unusual requests: Requiring Bessy to stand and sit with her eyes closed for long periods of time; requesting a cup of cocoa in the middle of the night, only to make Bessy drink it; and ordering Bessy to collect her thoughts in a journal that she must read to Arabella every evening.

Strange things are afoot at Castle Haivers, and with each turn of the page, the events get more unusual.  Soon, Bessy realizes she’s one of a long string of maids in Arabella’s past – and that one maid in particular, Nora, who was killed in a train accident, has left an indelible mark on the household. Bessy, out of curiousity and loyalty to Arabella, begins to piece together the mystery of Nora, and as she does, unravels tragedies that can’t be undone.

Bessy is a lively narrator with a sharp tongue and street smarts. She could be crass but harmlessly so. Despite her unsophisticated rhetoric, Bessy is a fabulous storyteller and observer of events at Castle Haivers. As she reveals the atrocities of her past, my heart went out to the poor girl, and Bessy became a character I kept rooting for, despite her many blunders.

The Observations could be downright creepy then light-hearted and humorous. Jane Harris is a magnificent writer, and she grabs the Gothic tradition with fierceness. I couldn’t get enough of Bessy’s narrative, and I often was rapt by the story. I highly recommend The Observations to fans of Gothic fiction – if you liked Fingersmith or The House at Riverton, you will love this book too. (  )

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