First Published: 2011 by Faber and Faber
My copy: Bought on Kindle
Memorable quote: “We adult females do not weep quite as often as some novelists would have you believe; we tend to be made of sterner stuff.”
This, Harris’ second novel, is in many ways the opposite of her first. I read her début, The Observations, last year and although I enjoyed its earthy tone and no-nonsense protagonist, the overall plot seemed disappointing, with a conclusion that failed to live up to its mysterious beginning. Gillespie and I is also a novel of two halves, but after the slow-building menace of its opening, the finale contains a revelation and reversal of expectation that only makes it more gripping. Unlike the refreshingly bawdy Bessy in The Observations who is never afraid to tell it like it is; the protagonist of Gillespie and I has voice that is far more refined and complex. In 1933 Harriet Baxter is an aged English spinster reflecting back on her life, especially the time she spent living in Glasgow during the time of the 1888 International Exhibition. Harriet is writing her memoir which concentrates on her relationship with Ned Gillespie an emerging artist who never rose to the prominence he deserved, she tells us, due to unfortunate events in his personal life.
The narrative skips back and forth between the aged Harriet and her earlier memories and in this way the seeds of tragedy and intrigue are sown right from the start. The opening pace is slow, evoking Victorian Glasgow’s sights and – particularly – sounds (Harris has a flair for accents) in intricate detail. I know very little about the Glasgow International Exhibition so it was fascinating to feel as if I was touring its artworks, inventions and treasures alongside Harriet and her companions. But the heavy historical detail in early chapters does not diminish the tension; indeed in terms of reading experience I was most reminded of Lionel Shriver’s chilling We Need to Talk About Kevin. This book walks a similar line in many ways; with a challenging narrator and sense of impending doom. As to the nature of that doom, I really can’t say any more without ruining some of the surprises that Harris has strewn – along with several red herrings – throughout the action. Sometimes the best reads can also be the hardest to write about and this novel falls into both categories. All I can say is this is a dark faux Victorian thriller designed to keep you gripped and keep you guessing. Subtle and psychological, Gillespie and I is a book that I’m very glad I bought as I’m sure it would offer a very different reading experience the second-time around.