A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is the tale of Harriet Baxter, who, after the death of her aunt in the late 1800s, goes to stay in Glasgow where by chance she makes the acquaintance of the Gillespie family. Headed by the up-and-coming artist, Ned Gillespie, Harriet gets to know his mother, his wife Annie and his two little girls – the sweet Rose and the troublesome Sibyl.
By 1933, Harriet has decided to write down her story, a memoir of her time with the talented Ned, her so-called soul mate, and so the story moves between these two periods – her friendship with the Gillespies’ and her life in 1933, where she writes and struggles with her odd companion, Sarah.
Of course, all is not quite as it seems. Harriet is the very epitome of the unreliable narrator and when tragedy strikes the family you never really find out what happened. The evidence is laid before you and you are left to make up your own mind.
I’m not entirely sure I enjoyed the book. It is well written, the characters well drawn and the period detail exact and evocative, but I felt it was overlong. There’s not much of a story to drag out over 600 pages and despite the good writing, at times I was very aware of the length of the book. I think it might have been more powerful had it been shorter. There is an awful lot of detail that I felt didn’t really add to the story.
I also couldn’t stand Harriet. I believe it was Harris’s intention that despite Harriet’s apparent goodness you aren’t supposed to warm to her or trust her entirely. However, she is the narrator and to have to keep her company for that many pages was tiresome. If I put the book down it was less because I was bored of the book than that I needed a rest from the interfering and meddlesome Harriet! She is exhausting company after a while, irritatingly logical and lacking, apparently, in any sense of knowing when to go home:
“… so that it became second nature for me to call upon the family, a few times a week, without even an invitation.”
As a portrait of a family utterly destroyed, as a brilliant example of the unreliable narrator, I would recommend the book. But beware that unreliable narrator…
Faber and Faber, 2011. ISBN-10:0571275168. 528pp.
I agree – it can be terribly annoying when you dislike the main character. I recall an interview with the gentleman who wrote ‘The Slap’, which was huge here recently, with a bestseller novel and TV series. People were sucked in, despite all the characters being unlikeable. When the author was asked why he had made them all like that, he replied that he didn’t find them annoying at all! So maybe Harris feels the same way about Harriet. 🙂
I love unreliable narrators myself and I absolutely loved this novel. It was certainly not too long for me and I thought it was brilliant exactly for the reason that you don’t know what to make of Harriet — at first, anyway. I’m sure Jane Harris knew exactly what she was doing with her. Sorry it didn’t work for you — but lucky we don’t all like the same things, as that would be very boring!
Funny how tastes differ: I happen to be reading this book right now and, unless something drastic happens towards the end (say, it turns into a dystopic steampunk thriller with sparkly zombies), I’ll probably end up recommend it to all and sundry!
I’ve got to agree with Harriet above – I, too, am enjoying the novel precisely because you don’t know what to make of the narrator, and because Harris doesn’t beat you over the head with her unreliability. The uncertainty grows gradually; at first I was quite uncertain about the uncertainty itself, and wondering if I was imagining things or whether there was something just a teensy bit off…
Harris does eccentric characters very well, I find – especially eccentric, strange, crazy, and even dangerous women – and in her novels the eccentricities don’t become just a cheap way to make some characters seem more interesting at the expense of others. Practically everyone in Gillespie and I is a bundle of eccentricities. Odd people are odd, normal people are odd, everybody’s odd, and even the normal things they do seem awfully odd, right from the beginning (the incident with the dentures!). Granted, you’re hard pressed to find a likeable character in the novel, and Harriet is the kind of person who seems a lovely new acquaintance at first but ends up making you run the other way when you spot her in the street… but I think the characters are delightful as characters, though they’re dreadfully annoying as people.
But let’s see how it turns out – I hope the book won’t fizzle out towards the end like The Observations did. I’ll probably come back here once I’m done, as I’ve already taken lots of notes and am dying to discuss it all with someone!
I had a feeling this would be the sort of book that you either loved or hated. There were moments in this book that I loved for their oddness (as pointed out by Leena). But Harriet just set my teeth on edge! But it’s testament to Harris’s writing that I felt that way, I think. Harriet felt like such a real person, one of those interfering, infuriating people I’m sure we’ve all met before. There comes a point in the book, you feel very much on the family’s side against Harriet. I’d definitely read other books by Jane Harris, purely because her characters are SO realistic.
Oh my, with such mixed comments & review, now I’m really curious about this book.
Nikki, I hope I didn’t sound like I was defending the book foaming at the mouth and my nostrils flaring… I’m just rather excited about the book because I got it out of the library with the purpose of forcing myself to read it, in order to recover my lost skill of disciplined reading (the due date is a powerful motivator!). I was delighted to find the book so engrossing I don’t actually have to force myself much at all…
Jackie, I think you might enjoy it – especially as art plays a significant role in the story!
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