Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I – Jane Harris
Faber and Faber, 2011

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Gillespie and I is narrated by Harriet Baxter, who lives in London, with a maid for company, and in 1833 is writing an account of her friendship with Ned Gillespie and his family. Ned Gillespie, according to Harriet, is an “artist, innovator, and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate.” The story interchanges between 1933, at the time in Harriet’s life when she is writing her account, and 1888-1890, which is the time during which the story Harriet has to tell plays out.

From the very first, the reader becomes aware that this account of Harriet’s friendship with Ned Gillespie will not just be the story of a happy acquaintance. Already in the preface, Harriet hints towards tragedy and unravelling of relationships, and Ned eventually burning most of his paintings and taking his own life. These are not spoilers, since they are mentioned in the second page of the book. With that information starts a story that makes you curious about what happened between Harriet and Ned Gillespie, and why exactly she wants to tell it to us. Sadly, there is very little I can say beyond revealing these same things that Harriet tells us in the preface, because this is a story with a lot of twist and turns that is all too easily spoiled.

Harriet is a charming and fascinating character. She comes across as friendly, but can also be scoffing and sarcastic, often to the point of making me laugh. What helped was that Harriet makes astute observations on society’s expectations of women, and then ridicules them.

“‘Pteriodomania!’ exclaimed Peden. ‘That dreaded disease.’ He angled his body away from me, in order to address me, sideways, over his shoulder. ‘It seems that when you ladies are weary of novels and gossip and crochet, you find much entertainment in ferns. No doubt you preside over a fern collection, Miss Baxter?’

‘Sadly, no!’ I replied. ‘What with all my novels and gossip and crochet, there’s no time left over for ferns.’
The astute reader will, of course, realise that I was employing irony; but Mr Peden gave a self-satisfied nod – as though I had proven his point.”

Pretty soon, as a reader, you start noticing that not all of what Harriet tells you is as straightforward as it might appear on first glance. There are hints towards other things that are going on. Jane Harris really is masterful at building suspense around certain events in the book. She drops obvious and not so obvious hints, making me feel that there were things I considered or even thought of before, only to turn them around a little once you approach the unveiling of them. From the middle of the book onwards, after a huge bomb drops on you as a reader, all you can do is wonder at what is truth and what is not, casting doubt on anything and everyone you have been told about, and struggling with your sympathy and doubts about Harriet. To what extent is Harriet an unreliable narrator? The strength of Gillespie and I is, I think, that despite establishing Harriet as an unreliable narrator, the reader is left to guess as to what extent she is, leaving both the option to disregard anything she says, and to feel an sympathise with her, open. One of the characters in the book describes my thoughts during the second half of the book perfectly, right up to the very end of Gillespie and I:

“I’m not sure what to think anymore. I don’t know what to think about anything or anyone, including Harriet Baxter.”

I very much enjoyed Gillespie and I. There is an addictive quality to Harris’ storytelling. Furthermore, she manages to transport the reader to nineteenth century Glasgow with her atmospheric prose. Wanting to know what had happened and how it would all be resolved meant that I read this book almost non-stop for two days. Perhaps this is why, towards the end of the book, I felt more of a dread in picking the book up. I felt that the second half, as most of it happens in one setting, did not hold as much spark as the first half. However, while actually reading those pages, I kept on being surprised and asking questions. I’m not sure this will end up to be my absolute favourite of the year. Actually, I do not think it will. I do know that I will be reflecting back on Harriet and Ned’s story for a long time to come.

Other Opinions: Savidge Reads, BooksPlease, Reading Matters, nomadreader, Secluded Charm, Capricious Reader, bookNaround, The House of the Seven Tails, A Musing Reviews, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Farm Lane Books Blog, Cornflower Books, Lovely Treez Reads, Reviews by Lola, Wordsmithonia, She Reads Novels.

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10 thoughts on “Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

  1. Jo @ Booklover Book Reviews

    Great review of a wonderful but difficult book not to provide spoilers for. Sounds like we had similar reading experiences. I only hope I do this title as much justice when I post my review in a couple of weeks time!

  2. Kate

    Nice review! I know what you mean – sometimes there are books that don’t end up being a favorite, but you continue to think about them nonetheless.

  3. Charlie

    An unreliable narrator, you say? I’ve read about this book before and admittedly wasn’t sure it was for me, but your discussing of the reliability sounds very interesting. The historian in me (looking for biased/unbiased stories) is intrigued!

  4. nomadreader

    I really loved this book (and do wish it had made the Orange shortlist) because it was so much fun to be on this journey with Harris. I thought I was on a very different journey for much of the book, which made it even better.

  5. buriedinprint

    Once I passed that mid-point, after that unmentionable plot point that casts everything into a new light, I simply did not stop reading. Fortunately it was morning, and I had nothing in particular planned for that day: I simply kept reading and reading until it was finished. I suppose, like you, I enjoyed the first part of the novel more, but I was *driven* by the second part in a way that was wholly absorbing, and that doesn’t happen all that often.

  6. Jenny

    I did like the one Jane Harris book I read in the past, and I definitely need to try another one! I’m actually sort of sad I didn’t get one from the library today — I was checking out all sorts of crazy historical fiction. It would have been a good occasion for more Jane Harris.

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