Category: Fiction/Historical/Mystery – Paperback: 624 pages – Publisher: Faber and Faber (independent publisher) – Source: Chain Bookshop (Waterstones)
First Published: 2011
Longlisted for the Orange Prize 2012
Harriet Baxter, the narrator of this 624 page chunkster of a novel, is a remarkable character. So remarkable in fact that I read this solidly in just two days as I wanted to see how much of the story she spun for me in the opening chapters was in fact ‘real’.
‘It would appear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gillespie. Who, if not me, was dealt that hand?’
(opening line of the book)
In 1933 in London, the elderly Harriet is writing down the story of what happened to the artist Ned Gillespie and his family over forty years previously in Glasgow. She’s still got her dry, intelligent wit but she’s behaving slightly strangely and her days are consumed with this task of documenting the events of 1888-1889. At the very start of her story she tells the reader about Ned being her ‘soul mate’, about him eventually burning almost all his paintings and about his suicide.
It’s quite an attention-grabbing opening! What follows is an absorbing story which flicks back and forth from Harriet’s problems in 1933 to the larger tragedies of 1888-1889.
In 1888 Harriet is in her thirties, single and unusually confident. She’s not rich but she has been bequeathed enough funds to be independent for life. After a family bereavement she decides, apparently on a whim, to go and see the International Exhibition at Glasgow. When an accident on a street brings her into contact with the Gillespie family she quickly becomes a regular visitor at the family home.
At the heart of the family is Ned, a poor artist who shows some promise but is failing to hit the balance of original and commercial he needs to find to make his success. His wife, Annie, has her hands full with two daughters, the sweet tempered and almost silent Rose and the angry, tantrum-throwing Sibyl. Ned’s mother, brother and sister all live nearby and are regular visitors at the Gillespie home and Harriet comes to watch and know them all.
Hints of scandal, a trial and the eventual ruin of Ned are made from the beginning but the tragedy takes time to unfold and it is in the middle of the book that the family are suddenly thrown into a nightmarish situation that Harriet may or may not know more about than she is telling them and the reader.
And that’s as much as I am going to reveal. This is a book I would define as a mystery or psychological thriller first and a historical novel second so you need to steer clear of spoilers to enjoy it for yourself.
I found Harriet such an intriguing narrator I was sucked in from the first page and barely blinked for the rest of the reading. Harris has given her creation a sharp, sly wit:
‘She told me that her parents were dead. I did manage to get a little more out of her. To my mind, it all sounds like a fairy tale. She claims to have grown up in a tiny cottage beside a well; her father was a shoemaker, and her mother, a washerwoman. Tempted to ask: ‘And your grandparents – were they elves?’ I managed to restrain myself, just in time.’
Irritated with a friend of Ned’s, she reveals to the reader that she reduced him in her head to:
‘Peden the Pedant, painter of pets; postulates, prances and pirouettes’
In between the barbed witticisms Harriet drops hints, assesses (and assassinates) the character of everyone around her and reveals only what she wants to. Following her narrative was a fascinating journey with someone I didn’t ever want to turn my back on. Since I love whodunits this mixture of clues and catty remarks was highly entertaining despite the increasingly dark tone of the story and, although the book is rather hard to juggle as a night-time read given the number of pages and size of the book, I just didn’t want to put it down.
I can see exactly why Gillespie and I was longlisted for the Orange Prize but am stunned that it wasn’t carried forward to the shortlist. Perhaps it’s the stately pace or the intricately wrought plot that put some of the judges off? Either way, Harriet is a character I won’t forget in a hurry and I personally much preferred this deeper, more crafted novel than the likeable but rather forgettable (to me) The Song of Achilles.