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.