Review: Gillespie and I, Jane Harris

First off – I am easily scared.  And I picked this book because it was pink, came highly recommended and had no idea that it was scary.  The only other book that has ever terrified me was The Woman in Black, which I read aged 16 when I was sharing a room with my cousin and I only got through it reading it by torchlight, checking ever few minutes that she was still there to protect me.  To put this in context, my cousin is five years younger.  Gillespie and I is terrifying – or so I found it.  It possibly didn’t help that I read it on a train while I was coming back to an empty house.  I got a wee bit nervous once I got through the door and couldn’t bring myself to turn off the downstairs lights before I went to bed.  While as I said above, I scare easy, this is still a pretty good achievement for a book which does not contain anything that goes bump in the night.

I picked this book up in the bookshop as a Waterstones recommended read  and vaguely thought that it might be a bit like The Blind Assassin, a woman telling the story of her mis-spent youth having an affair with another woman’s husband.  Nope, not even close.  Gillespie and I is narrated by Harriet Baxter, speaking in the 1930s about her time in Glasgow in the 1880s.  She states that she wishes to set the record straight about her relationship with Ned Gillespie, ‘artist, innovator, and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soulmate’.  After all the ‘silly misunderstanding’ about the ‘trial and the white slavery business’ the reader is of course invited to understand just how difficult things have been for Harriet.

We are invited to sympathise with Harriet, a lonely woman who has been recently bereaved of her aunt and is travelling to Glasgow to visit the International Exhibition to get a change of air. Upon arrival, she meets the women of the Gillespie family when Ned Gillespie’s mother Elspeth faints in the street and swallows her dentures, requiring First Aid from Harriet.  Harriet is swept up into the lives of the grateful family, who are Elspeth the mother, Ned the artist, Annie his wife, Kenneth (Ned’s brother), Mabel (Ned’s sister) and then Ned’s two children, Sybil and Rose.  Harriet casts Ned’s family as a burden upon him, restricting his artistic development due to his financial and paternal responsibilities.  Harriet however is here to help.  Tremble.

Several of Ned’s difficulties do indeed vanish.  Harriet discovers that a scandal is looming over Ned’s gay brother Kenneth and pays off someone who was planning on publishing something about it in the newspaper.  Not long after, Kenneth vanishes to Italy.  Ned’s interfering sister Mabel marries and leaves for Africa.  Yet Ned’s favourite daughter Sybil develops disturbed behaviour and appears to become a danger to those around her.  Around two years after Harriet meets the Gillespie family, Ned’s younger daughter Rose disappears.  To her shock and horror, Harriet is arrested for conspiracy to murder.  The final half of the novel deals with the trial.

It’s very difficult to write a review of this book without ruining it.  I will say this, Jane Harris has created one of the most effective unreliable narrators which I have ever come across.  We only ever get to see things through Harriet’s eyes, she is writing from fifty years After The Event and tries to refute as she goes many of the charges that have been levelled against her.  It is fascinating how as a reader we are forced to fill in the gaps of the things which Harriet mentions once and then never again – Mabel is a nuisance to her brother, then suddenly she is married, all of these ‘little misunderstandings’ mount up.  Still, even from the very beginning there are anomalies in her testimony – she and Ned Gillespie spend only fleeting moments together, to describe him as her soulmate is strange and she never quite explains why she latches on to the Gillespie family so quickly.

Another interesting thread is Harriet’s account of her life in the 1930s as an old lady.  By this stage she is clearly an alcoholic but still of independent means, Harriet details her battles with her maid who she supposedly tries to be kind to.  It would be fascinating to have lived through this time period – as long as you could do so without having to be Harriet Baxter of course – Harriet notes the technological and societal changes which she has seen.  Having travelled up to Glasgow in an age when as a woman you could not look to the left or right and certainly not meet the eye of a gentleman, she now lives in an age of universal suffrage.  Harriet bewails being born too early to truly enjoy these liberties, but to be frank as a protagonist she is not one for whom I felt much sympathy.

I frequently read reviews of books that I have read but it is very rare for me to actually look on a forum to see other people’s theories about a novel, this time I did.  With the facts of the case so open to interpretation, I was interested to see what other people thought.  There were some who believed in Harriet’s professed innocence, people who read Gillespie and I and took Harriet literally but … hmm.  I thought it was clever of Harris to base the trial in Scotland, thereby taking advantage for dramatic effect of that most Scottish of legal loopholes, the Not Proven verdict – the “We Ken You Dunnit But We Cannae Prove You Dunnit”.  (NB – this is not a spoiler because Harriet is writing from the 1930s and has clearly not been hanged).

I found Harriet a very disturbing narrator, she clearly believed in her own version of events, briskly dismissing the ‘little misunderstandings’ that had cropped up so frequently in her life.  After the trial she moves to America and apparently suffers another such but as she comments in her closing words, the last one was ‘so minor it did not even come to trial’.  I started the novel believing Harriet, I thought this was the story of Sybil Gillespie’s psychosis, but gradually my view shifted.  I realise that I was more inclined to sympathise since she spoke so warmly of her stepfather – I am biased but I tend to think that when people can get on well with their stepfamilies it is a sign of being well-adjusted – I wonder if this is something that the author wrote deliberately.  Alack that cannot be said of Miss Baxter.  This book lay around my house for a few months and then I read it in a weekend, it is very compelling – nothing is what it seems, the reader’s expectations are confounded but although other people did not, I liked the ending.  Harriet’s mental unravelling at the end exposes several truths which she had flitted past, yet still leaves an uncomfortable question over her true nature.

Right, I’m off to read something about fluffy bunnies now *shudder*.

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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Published by Faber & Faber on May 5th 2011
Genres: Fiction, General
Pages: 528
ISBN: 9780571271993

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