8th May 2011
Jane Harris’s blackly comic second novel, set in Victorian Glasgow, is a tour de force of fine writing and storytelling.
Jane Harris: like a Hitchcock film, every detail is there for a reason (photo: Justin Williams)
I came across Jane Harris’s first novel, The Observations, when it was dramatised for the radio. Any book that can triumph over the unnecessary sighing and crunching gravel of the Woman’s Hour serial is the literary equivalent of a spirit level, the quality of the central voice staying true whatever the angle. So I was looking forward to her next work and, for once, the second novel is even better than the first.
In Gillespie and I, Harris returns to Victorian Scotland, this time to the Glasgow of 1888, a city in the middle of the International Exhibition, complete with national pavilions and gondolas on the river Kelvin. The narrator is Harriet Baxter, a spinster of independent means, who is recalling the events of the novel from her flat in Bloomsbury 50 years later.
The story starts when Harriet saves a woman from choking on her false teeth. She turns out to be the mother of Ned Gillespie, an artist not dissimilar to one of the Glasgow Boys. Harriet becomes friendly with Gillespie, his wife, Annie, and their two daughters, and rapidly becomes indispensable to them. “Knowing how much Annie yearned to improve her painting, I tried to help out around the house whenever I could so that she could devote more time to her Art. Personally, I have never had much talent for any of life’s accomplishments.”
She commissions Annie to paint her portrait, and saves Gillespie from humiliation in the press. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the family is plagued by trouble; the elder daughter, Sybil, is plainly disturbed — she is blamed for pornographic graffiti that appear on the apartment walls and there is evidence that she may have tried to poison the whole family at Hogmanay.
It is not until about two thirds through the story that the reader begins to suspect that Harriet is not a dutiful spinster but something much more powerful. It turns out that she has met Gillespie before, in London, and as the story unfolds the reader is gradually led to understand that Harriet Baxter is no Nick Carraway narrator-as-bystander, as in The Great Gatsby, but the ultimate solipsist.
The clue is in the title. Harriet lies at the heart of this brilliantly plotted, blackly comic book like a black widow spider at the centre of her web. Not since The Murder of Roger Ackroyd has a writer come up with such a gloriously unreliable narrator, with the added bonus that Harris, unlike Agatha Christie, can actually create characters with real depth and subtlety. She is also adept at evoking the atmosphere of Victorian Glasgow without ever letting her clearly exhaustive research slow down the story. Like a Hitchcock film, every detail is there for a reason. You wonder why she almost throws away the detail that real gondoliers were imported from Venice to ply their trade on the river Kelvin during the exhibition, only to find that it plays a crucial part in the second half of the story.
It is rare to read a literary novel where the storytelling is as skilful as the writing is fine, but in Gillespie and I, Harris has pulled off the only too rare double whammy — a Booker-worthy novel that I want to read again.