No need to wonder whether you fit in this novel: Harriet Baxter is speaking directly to you, Reader.
Even though you weren’t wondering yet.
And, on the next page, she suggests that you “may also wonder why I have been silent for so long”.
With that, you do start to wonder.
Not so much at her silence, but at her preoccupation with you.
You haven’t even been officially introduced — the book is still in roman numerals, not properly paged — and Harriet is overly concerned with what you’re thinking.
And, really, that’s the point.
Or, more accurately, you are the point.
You are the listener.
You are the one to whom Harriet is directing her narrative.
You are the one who is shaping what she is saying.
Because it matters to her what you think.
Above all else, Gillespie and I is the story that Harriet Baxter is telling you. It is the version of events that she wants you to hear.
When you first meet Harriet, it is 1933, and she is almost 80 years old.
But very quickly the scene shifts from London to Glasgow, 45 years earlier.
Harriet is 35 years old and travelling very soon after the death of her Aunt Miriam (and she is concerned about whether that will appear disrespectful).
Nonetheless, Harriet is on the move and she soon meets Ned Gillespie, makes a “connection to a new place” and discovers “a world of hitherto unknown possibilities”.
There, at 11 Stanley Street, barely a dozen pages into the narrative, you are introduced to Ned and his wife, Annie, and their two young daughters (Sibyl, 7 and Rose, 3), and his mother-in-law Elspeth.
The narrative shifts, mainly between London 1933 and Glasgow 1888, as Harriet tells her tale.
Of course, as you will have guessed, there is a chance that she does not remember things perfectly. But she does have an aid, a publication of sorts that helps her keep the dates and details straight.
Though such sources are not to be trusted. Some people who are aware of parts of this story could “have told any number of elaborate untruths (as did others!)”.
Harriet knows that “life is full of strange coincidences” but also full of untruths and half-truths. She is always watching for them herself.
She is also aware of the danger of “supposing what might have happened, in retrospect”. But you have no need of supposing. You can listen to the story of Gillespie and I.
Certainly Harriet is quite the authority. She can sketch a scene beautifully, whether it is the quaint Cocoa House in the park (Van Houten’s) or the political ins-and-outs of the art world in Glasgow.
And she can recognize when someone has a secret. Like Annie. “Poor girl” with that horrible “burden of [a] secret”. Harriet will be your guide.
Mostly she speaks very directly to you. Beyond the back-and-forth of the dual timeline, the segments are chronologically arranged, and it’s easy to follow the cascade of events.
The language is straight-forward and, when it reaches beyond the everyday it’s to create a mood.
Say, for instance, this description of some lemoncurd tarts, “so blistered and misshapen that they bore closer resemblance to a cluster of purulent sores”.
This doesn’t happen very often, and it’s just as well, because you will desperately want to know what happened.
“It is fascinating how absorbed one can become in a world that consists merely of ink and paper,” Harriet tells you.
And you believe her, because Gillespie and I is completely absorbing.
ORANGE Prize Nominee 2012: Book 5 of 20
Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I
Originality The unreliable narrator is one of the oldest stories there is.
Readability Tremendously readable. Particularly for those who love historical novels.
Author’s voice Consistently seductive, though not always welcoming.
Narrative structure Rhythmic swaps between 1933 and 1888: increasingly short spans.
Gaffes None spotted.
Expectations The Observations was previously nominated and also solidly entertaining.