Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

glasgowexhibition

Gillespie and I is one of those books that draws you in from the very beginning, with a story that immediately promises intrigue and suspense. In 1930s London, elderly Harriet Baxter is writing a memoir of the artist Ned Gillespie, who she knew for a short while in the 1880s, when living in Glasgow. Harriet reveals that Ned was a greatly tragic figure, who was compelled to destroy all of his works before killing himself a few years after Harriet first became acquainted with him. She is adamant that she wants to return Ned to the position of prominence that he deserves, to resurrect his ‘forgotten genius’, by telling his story, but it is clear from the mention of ‘the trial’ and ‘white-slavery business’, that Harriet quickly dismisses as unimportant before launching into her narrative, that there is far more to Ned’s story than a tortured artistic temperament, and far more to Harriet than the persona of a harmless octogenarian she attempts to project.

In 1888, Harriet Baxter is a wealthy spinster in her mid thirties who is intelligent and cultured, but somewhat lonely. The aunt she used to spend her days caring for has recently died, and so Harriet, who has family connections in Scotland, decides to leave London behind for a while and go to Glasgow to enjoy the summer exhibition. As chance would have it, practically as soon as she steps off the train, she finds herself assisting a woman who has fainted on the street. Harriet’s lectures in First Aid come in useful when it transpires that the woman’s dentures have become stuck in her throat, and when the woman recovers after Harriet’s ministrations, she declares that she must come and have tea with her and her family by way of thanks. Harriet dutifully goes, having few friends in Glasgow, and finds herself in the home of Ned Gillespie, a young artist she had admired recently at a show in London who is now showing his work at the summer exhibition. The woman she has saved is, coincidentally, Ned’s mother, and the somewhat ramshackle house and studio is shared by Ned, his wife Annie and their two daughters Sybil and Rose, as well as Ned’s wayward siblings, Fred and Mabel. Over the course of the next few weeks, Harriet finds herself increasingly drawn into the Gillespie’s world, becoming a confidante of Annie and the elder Mrs Gillespie, and an advisor on artistic matters to Ned. However, all is not rosy; as Harriet insinuates, something is very wrong with the Gillespie’s elder daughter, Sybil, whose behaviour is highly disturbing, and Ned’s obsession with his work seems to be driving him away from his family. Harriet, convinced that Ned is a genius, will do anything to help the Gillespies, but as summer moves into autumn and Harriet’s short stay seems to be becoming indefinite, a shocking event occurs that shatters their carefree circle, and none of their lives will be the same again.

The narrative moves between the 1880s and 1930s, and the state of mind of the now elderly Harriet allows for light to be gradually shed on the course of events taking place in the past. Harriet projects herself as an innocent, but her barbed comments, pointed silences and clear prejudice towards particular members of the family make it very clear to the reader that Harriet is not necessarily someone to be trusted. However, whether Harriet is just a lonely woman, to be pitied for her obsession with Ned and his family, or a manipulative and disturbing character, capable of all manner of evil, is left tantalisingly open to interpretation. Did Harriet orchestrate the events she narrates, or was she just an innocent bystander? And what really did take her to Glasgow in the first place? Whim or design? As events build to a crescendo, the tension becomes all consuming, and I couldn’t bear to put the book down. I was a little disappointed by the ending, I must admit; the story was so compelling and I wanted an ending that had me gasping, but it just sort of fizzled out with no real conclusion. I appreciate that Harris probably wanted readers to come to their own interpretations, but I would have preferred a tighter ending that offered more concrete answers. Unlike The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, which uses a similar narrative technique, I didn’t think there were enough overt clues in the narrative to allow the reader to come to a clear interpretation of events. As such, I felt quite unsatisfied as I closed the pages, despite having been highly entertained throughout. Even so, I would strongly recommend Gillespie and I; it is a truly absorbing novel, with a wonderful cast of characters that are brought vividly to life, and it certainly left me rather haunted by its events. Jane Harris is one to watch!

10 comments

  1. Coincidentally, I picked this up for 50p in a charity shop a couple of weeks ago, having enjoyed Harris’s The Observations. I hadn’t heard of it previous to buying it, but your excellent review has me looking forward to reading it. Thank you!

  2. I adored this novel (and The Observations, which if you haven’t read is another brilliant novel). But I didn’t think there was any doubt about Harriet’s role in the 1880s events, so it was interesting to see that there could be another way of reading it. Great review and great reminder of an excellent book.

    1. It’s interesting how people can have such a different interpretation, isn’t it! I did have no real doubt about my own idea of her actions, but I would have liked a more clear cut ending. Thanks very much – I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

  3. I really enjoyed this too, but totally agree that the ending is disappointing. However, the main body of the book is fantastic: I loved that feeling of realisation that the narrator is not what she seems to be.

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