Published: 2007 by Faber and Faber
My copy: bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “She was all prinked up, her cap was off and she had put ribbons in her hair, but you might as well have stuck primroses in a cowpat.”
This was a fairly enjoyable slice of bawdy, mystery-laden Victoriana, in the same vein as Sarah Waters though not quite the same league. Set in mid-nineteenth-century Scotland, the novel follows the adventures of Bessy, a teenage girl escaping a troubled past in the Glasgow underworld who bluffs her way into a maid’s job at ‘Castle Haivers’ – romantically named but in fact little more than an ramshackle country farmhouse. But appearances are deceptive, both in relation to Bessy herself and her new place of employment. Bessy finds herself increasingly troubled by the odd demands and unpredictable nature of her new mistress, and as she tries to learn more about her employer she becomes caught up in the mystery surrounding the departure of the Castle Haivers’ previous maid.
This was an enjoyable enough read, although I felt the plot lost momentum in the second half. Also, despite a few spooky happenings, it never truly captured the darkly thrilling tone of either authentic Victorian sensation fiction or its best modern imitators. The ending disappointed me a little too. That said, where this really succeeds is in the character of Bessy whose earthy, no-nonsense narrative and outlook on life is a joy to share, and laugh out loud funny in places. The Observations also has a richly drawn supporting cast: lustful farm hands, conniving wannabe politicians, busy-body landladies and sinister clergymen. I found it a bit of a patchy read but one with many more pros than cons overall. This is Harris’s debut novel so I will certainly be interested at some point to read her next book, Gillespie and I.