Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris


Purchased from the Book Depository

I confess that when I scheduled this post to appear a few days after the announcement of the 2011 Man Booker Prize longlist I was confident that I would be reviewing one of the just-announced contenders. Gillespie and I has been out in the UK for a few months (and was just released in Canada) and received glowing reviews from a wide variety of sources I trust, many of whom have quite different tastes. Many participants on the Man Booker debate forum had it on their personal longlists prior to the official announcement. And reading it suited my schedule — as a longish literary mystery (504 pages) it promised to be my kind of “summer book”, a volume that could be read for 15 minutes or two hours, not too demanding, but challenging in its way.

Well, I was wrong about the longlisting (that’s hardly ever happened before 🙂 ). But I was dead on in my positive “summer book” evaluation — Gillespie and I is entertaining and challenging in equal measure. With half the summer left to go, if you are looking for a book to take to the cottage or lakeside that will fill a week or two of reading in shortish spurts, you could do a lot worse than buying a copy of Jane Harris’ novel.

The bulk of Gillespie and I is set in Glasgow in 1888 — Ned Gillespie is an “artist, innovator and forgotten genius; my dear friend and soul mate” who died prematurely at the age of 36 “just as (in my humble opinion) he was about to reach the very zenith of his creative powers”.

The “my” in those references is one Harriet Baxter and she is writing those words in Bloomsbury 45 years later in 1933 in a manuscript that is part biography and part memoir. She notes that this will be the first book about the artist and, in addition to the questions raised by the overly effusive praise in those quotes above, there is an ominous note about the project in her introduction:

You may also wonder why I have been silent for so long, and why it has taken me all these years to put pen to paper. Perhaps I needed to gain some distance from a sequence of profoundly affecting events, not least of which was that Ned, in addition to wiping out his artistic legacy, also took his own life. By that time, I was thousands of miles away, and powerless to help him. Confident of an eventual reconciliation, I never suspected that we were moving towards such a rapid unravelling, not only of our relationship (what with all that silly white-slavery business and the trial) but also of his entire fate. However, let us not get ahead of ourselves. I will come to that in due course.

While by definition all memoirs are the author’s selective view of history and carry some degree of unreliability, that introduction plants a crimson-red flag on this writing project, in addition to offering some tantalizing hints of what will happen as the story unfolds. Harris’ great success in this novel is the balance she achieves for the reader in recounting a version of what happened in Glasgow 45 years ago while simultaneously building skepticism about just how much of the narrative should be taken as objective truth.

Harriet’s Glasgow introduction to the Gillespie family comes while she is walking the city’s streets — she is a woman with a trust income and has come from London for an extended period to take in the first Glasgow International Expedition. Her attention is drawn to what she first thinks is street theatre:

There, indeed, was a lady, perhaps in her early sixties, lying on the pavement near the entrance to the Argyle Arcade. However, now that I could see clearly, I ascertained that she was not a ‘commedienne’, but that she had suffered some kind of collapse. This was evident from the genuine dismay on the face of the girl at her side, a pretty golden-haired creature in print frock and tall-crowned straw hat. The girl gazed around wildly and then hailed a youth in dusty clothes who happened to be passing. I could not overhear what was said because at that moment a cab sped by, but after a few words were spoken on both sides, the boy turned and dashed up Buchanan Street, no doubt in search of help.

I include that quote as much to indicate Harris’ Victorian style in the biography/memoir sections as to recount a development in the plot of the book. Harriet, who has first aid training, will save the older woman’s life: she has swallowed her upper set of false teeth and Harriet extracts them from her gullet (that’s the term Harris uses). The older woman, Elspeth, is Ned Gillespie’s mother; the younger is his wife Annie. Once Elspeth has recovered, Harriet is invited to call and apparently her introduction to the Gillespie family is underway.


We discover on Harriet’s first visit that she has already met Ned Gillespie in London some months ago at an exhibition of his work in the Grosvenor Gallery. She has noticed that a Gillespie work is listed in the Exhibition catalogue and wonders if it is the same artist:

He and I had spoken only for a few moments and I had, more or less, forgotten about him until my arrival in Glasgow when I noticed a Gillespie listed among the artists in the catalogue of the Exhibition, and wondered, vaguely, whether this could be the same man.

The life-saving act and her interest in art is enough to make Harriet a welcome regular visitor to Ned and Annie’s flat since she lives just around the corner — Elspeth’s flat is just across the street. That device enables author Harris to relate the narrative of the 1888 story; the novel alternates those sections with present-day chapters from London in 1933 which allow her to develop the “unreliability” thread.

In both threads, Harris rations the revelation of significant events in her story with deliberate care and I will respect that by going no further in describing any elements of it — that last quote comes on page 25, so I have left you 479 to discover the remainder of the story yourself. We know already that there is going to be a trial at some point, so some kind of (alleged) crime is obviously going to take place — one that Harriet feels demands a recounting several decades on.

Let me sum this up with an observation that has been made elsewhere, but I’ll repeat it. If you are a fan of Sarah Waters and her disturbing literary mysteries (Fingersmith and The Little Stranger come to mind) and are eagerly awaiting her next work, Gillespie and I is an excellent volume to fill the void while you wait. Like Waters, Harris is a storyteller of the first order and has a way of setting the ambiguities of her tale in delicious aspic, carefully rationing out the meaty parts so that all 504 pages are rewarding.

I won’t speculate on what the Booker jurors found wanting in this book — I have nine of their 13 choices to read (they are described in the post below this one if you haven’t seen the list yet), so perhaps I will know better in a few months. All I can say at this point is that I would have found no fault with the jurors at all if they had included this compelling and highly readable story on their longlist. Curl up by the cottage fire with this on your lap and I predict it will add to your vacation.

15 Responses to “Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris”

  1. Colette Jones Says:

    I agree that it would make an excellent Booker choice, but we don’t know that it was submitted. I asked the author at her event in London a few weeks ago and she didn’t know whether it had been submitted or not. She did mention I could ask her publisher, who was there, but I didn’t!


  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: Good point. Faber (Harris’ publisher) did place one on the list (On Canaan’s Side) but that would have been an automatic entry since Barry was short-listed a few years ago.

    And a quick look at Faber’s website shows Gillespie and I listed first in their “featured fiction” column — I spent some time on the site and couldn’t spot any other possible contenders, so I would have to think it was one of their two submissions.

    The Sarah Waters comparison that I made works both ways, unfortunately. While I liked this novel, it is a very conventional Victorian mystery, albeit well-executed. And I could easily see a juror saying “it is good, but not as good as, say, Sarah Waters and certainly not as good as Hilary Mantel so let’s give the spot to another book since this one won’t win anyway.” As much as I liked it, if push came to shove, I’d have to say that Waters’ works are better.

    On the other side of the argument, I’d say that it is a much better novel than Pigeon English (my least favorite so far) which in its own way is an example of equally conventional form (the adolescent narrator’s “different” view of the world).


  3. Colette Jones Says:

    I think this is much better than the only Sarah Waters I have read (The Little Stranger). I was enthralled throughout Gillespie and I, and very bored through 2/3 of The Little Stranger. I understand why you are comparing them, but I don’t think the judges could possibly be using the rationale you describe, or they wouldn’t have chosen Pigeon English. If it wins, I’ll have to eat my hat I guess!


  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I haven’t yet read Derby Day but I suspect it may supply a better comparison (I was being cheeky in putting forward Pigeon English) in trying to interpret the jury’s thinking in leaving this one out. Reviews describe it as a Victorian melodrama and reference Trollope and Dickens.


  5. Kirsty Says:

    I was disappointed not to see this on the Booker longlist, though I temper that by saying that I’ve only read one of the longlisted books so I have no idea what it was up against.

    Gillespie and I ticks all the boxes for me. I love Victorian (and many neo-Victorian) novels, I love mysteries, and I’m a sucker for an unreliable narrator. I can certainly see the comparison with Sarah Waters, and while I’m a confirmed Waters fan, I do think that Harris’s novel stands alongside her. Indeed, I think that The Little Stranger is the weakest of Waters’s novels, and if that was shortlisted then… you take my point.

    But, as I say, I’ve only read Jamrach’s Menagerie from the longlist, so it may well have been up against some real corkers. I have the D J Taylor book waiting in the wings, so it’ll be interesting to compare.


  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kirsty: Many thanks for the observation — while I’m up for an occasional (neo-)Victorian novel, one or two a year are enough for me, so I am hardly expert on the genre.

    As for Waters, I think I’d put this behind Fingersmith but ahead of The Little Stranger, so I think Harris does deserve fair comparison.

    D. J. Taylor is on the way — given that your expertise on the Victoriann front exceeds mine, please check back when you have had a chance to read it. I like horse-racing novels (and have actually been to a Derby) so I am looking forward to that aspect of it.


  7. savidgereads Says:

    I loved this book. In fact I think it is one of my favourites of the year so far, which makes me think that Derby Day by D.J. Taylor better be blinking good if it was a case of only having one Victorian mystery (Jamrach’s Menagerie is more an adventure) on the list. That said I am not sure how helpful mentioning that this book didnt get on the long list so often. It almost defeats a glowing review in a way. Or maybe thats me. (That’s also not a critisim, its just a vibe I have had from lots of sites since the announcement and one that I’m struggling with.) I also admit I was cross about this not being on the list, as I am some other books, but the list is there now, its done.

    The point is this is a fantatsic book, as you have so wonderfully stated, and one I hope lots and lots and lots of people pick up to have a read, end of. Hee hee.


  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Simon: Well, we know from bookermt’s reports on sale figures on the Man Booker forum that the longlist does not provoke a big bump in sales. On the other hand, I think the debate section does bring attention to novels that would otherwise be overlooked — I’m not a big Victorian mystery fan, so without the forum I would never have discovered this novel and it was a very good read.

    As I noted above, Fabers is giving this one attention and I think it will be noticed by those who like this kind of fiction (let’s face it, it is not to everyone’s taste).

    As a Canadian, I am now stuck in the “netherworld” — the eight I ordered are in the hands of the BPO and Canada Post, probably for another 10 days. When they do get here, Jamrach’s Menagerie or Derby Day will be competing for first read.


  9. Mrs.B. Says:

    (SPOILER WARNING) I was in the middle of this book when the Booker longlist came out and since I was so riveted by it, I expected it to make the longlist. I was surprised it didn’t. However, when I came to the part where the trial starts, I started to get a bit exasperated by the book and Harriet’s character. It was quite obvious that she had done the deed. In my opinion, The Little Stranger is much better because right now, I’m still not sure what happened in that book. I understand perfectly why it was included in the longlist. Gillespie and I just wasn’t good enough to make the cut.


    • KevinfromCanada Says:

      SPOILER. Mrs. B: I took the liberty of putting a spoiler warning on your comment since we have kept the outcome hidden up till now. Like you, I thought the book slowed badly when Harriet’s involvement in the crime became apparent (and I do think it is pretty obvious — the real surprise would have been if she wasn’t involved). Others who have commented preferred this to The Little Stranger — I’d have a tough time picking between the two.


  10. Max Cairnduff Says:

    19th Century Glasgow, how can I resist?

    I printed a copy of this review a while back and only just read it. I’m glad I did. The mix of unreliability, period and setting make it sound like a great Winter read.

    I may though try her first novel, The Observations, before this one. Have you read that Kevin?

    For me the finest writer of Victorian mystery was Charles Palliser, who wrote the extraordinary novel Quincunx and the extremely good (and vastly shorter) The Unburied. After that though as far as I know he’s still alive he wrote nothing further. I have no idea why. Perhaps his publisher dropped him, but a shame if so. Perhaps he had nothing to add.

    Now you’ve read the Taylor my suspicion is that if you had to put one forward for the Booker it would be this. Is that right?


  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I’m still working my way through Trollope (have the political novels to go — which shows that Charles Palliser is well-named, but I digress) so I don’t really know contemporary Victorian-style novelists — and have not read Harris’ first novel. I’ll keep an eye out for Palliser, so thanks for that.

    As for this and Derby Day, there isn’t much to choose between the two for me. At the halfway point, I would have said Gillespie and I was clearly better — Harris sets up her story much more effectively. From there on, Taylor had a clear edge — the latter part of this one did slow badly.

    If I was a juror, I would have picked Taylor. From what I have seen of this year’s jury, I would have expected them to choose this one (there is a chance it was not formally considered — Faber and Faber had three possibilities, so would have had to resort to a call-in letter on one, which might or might not have been called-in).

    And if a friend asked for a recommendation, my choice would probably be gender-based. The Victorian obsession in this one (Harriet’s for Gillespie) seems more suited to women readers, the obsession in Derby Day (how to make money off the race) to males. Both obsessions, of course, are just conceits to set the stage for a rollicking Victorian unpacking of foibles.


  12. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Not the answer I’d expected Kevin, so that’s interesting.

    I took a look at The Obsessions and I quite liked the writing, but it’s over 400 pages long. I may pick it up as a future airplane read (as I did the Taylor I have in fact). Thanks for bringing Gillespie to my attention anyway.


  13. kimbofo Says:

    I’ve just finished reading this book and absolutely loved it — not what I expected it at all. I loved the way Harris toyed with our view of Harriet — initially you see her as quite demure and a “good egg” but as the story progresses you begin to have your doubts. I almost want to read it again now that I don’t see Harriet quite the same way as I did when I first began the book. What clues would I see that I missed first time round?


  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I enjoyed the book a lot, although I’ve felt no need to contemplate re-reading it. I was suspicious of Harriet from the start and quite appreciated the way that Harris steadily added to undertainties about her true character. It is definitely a genre book but a very well-executed one.


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