14 November 2019

Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

In 2017, our local bookstore chain Chapters moved to another location in the city.   Because it's easier to sell off stock than pack it up, the prices eventually dropped to clearance rates.  I remember pressing $2 copies of Lissa Evans Crooked Heart into the hands of browsers because it's such a sure-fire pleaser with wide appeal.  A small stack of copies of Gillespie and I  were on the same table, triggering the memory of a favourable review by Rachel (Book Snob).  Feeling utterly indifferent about a novel set in Victorian Glasgow but loathe to leave a book sale empty-handed I added it to my basket.  And a good thing too, because it is brilliant.

Harriet Baxter is living in Bloomsbury and writing her memoir, specifically focusing on the time she spent with her dear friend, the artist Ned Gillespie and his family.  Moving back and forth between two time periods: 1933 and 1888, Harriet portrays herself as a loving stepdaughter and endlessly supportive friend.  As readers we know not to trust a first-person narrative, don't we.

After the death of an aunt she has been caring for, and in need of a change of scenery, Harriet leaves London in favour of Glasgow.  A small annuity from her grandfather affords a simple but comfortable existence for this spinster in her mid-thirties.  Harriet is well-turned out, pays scrupulous attention to etiquette, and considers herself a modern woman.  Settling into her new accommodation near West End Park, Harriet spends the next few days visiting the first ever Glasgow International Exhibition.  One afternoon while browsing shop windows, Harriet sees a woman lying on the pavement in a state of medical emergency.  The woman's daughter-in-law desperately looks around for help.  With some knowledge of first-aid, Harriet rushes in and saves the woman from choking to death.  The usual form of payment for being saved from the brink of death is naturally, an invitation to tea.  Harriet promptly accepts the invitation and calls on the Gillespie's.....

   'In contrast to Queen's Crescent (a well-kept terrace of houses sat behind a pretty communal garden) Stanley Street was rather less attractive: a short thoroughfare, flanked by spiked iron blackened by carbonic deposits, the whole vista made all the more sombre by a lack of open spaces or greenery.  These were still respectable dwellings: indeed, it seemed that a well-known composer resided across the landing from the Gillespies.  However, most of the inhabitants of Stanley Street were much less affluent than their neighbours in some of the very grand terraces nearby.'

If only Elspeth had regained consciousness, brushed off her skirt, and went on her way with a thank-you, the future would have been much brighter for the Gillespie family.  But like a cuckoo in the nest, Harriet's arrival in their parlour brings a sinister pall over the household.  Decades later, while writing at her desk, Harriet describes the strange happenings, a sudden illness, devastating injuries, and a young child's death as tragic events she was simply caught up in.  At the end of the book I turned back to reread the first few pages; the disparity between perception and reality is spine tingling.

Jane Harris has created one of the slickest depictions of a character with a personality disorder that I can recall.  Because Harriet is so likable you want to give her the benefit of the doubt but acts of kindness could at any time be just that, or the bait to a trap.  Part of the fun is guessing which way things will go at any given time.  I especially enjoyed the author's subtlety when portraying certain scenes, such as the impulsive shaking of a dove's egg to prevent a hatching, much to an admirer's horror.  These aren't the cliched acts of a psychopath but every bit as chilling.

The less said about the plot the better, but I will now be that person who presses a copy of Gillespie and I into the hands of anyone looking for their next cracking good read.  As a heads up, the first third of the story is a slow simmer, but you will reach a point when you can't wait to get home from work so you can dive back into the dark world of Harriet Baxter. 
  
A fabulous read that will keep the bedside lamp on long after bedtime! 

'Countess de Pourtales, the former Mrs Sebastian Schlesinger' by Sir John Everett Millais 

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