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.