Caveat Lector! I am including significant spoiler material in here. You hae been warned.
When I began reading Gillespie and I
, it was a bit of a compulsion. Usually I have two books open at a time, one that I tote about with me and another that I dip into just before bedtime. While reading Gillespie
I used it for both, a rare event.
The format here is Harriet Baxter, an old lady in 1933, recalling events that had taken place over forty years past. We spend the bulk of our time in the 19th century, with occasional interludes in 20th Century London, as Harriet writes her memoir.
The 1888 version of Harriet seems a good egg (I picture Anna Maxwell Martin in the role).
She is in her mid-thirties, having spent her youth taking care of older relatives in London. With the passing of the last of these, she has inherited enough to allow her to live decently without having to work. She heads north to Glasgow at the time of the Great International Exposition. In a chance encounter she saves the life of Elspeth Gillespie, the Gillespie family matriarch, and becomes a fixture in Elspeth’s family. Not least of these is Ned Gillespie, a young artist of considerable promise.
The family is a mixed bunch. Ned is married to Annie, an aspiring artist as well, and they have two daughters, the pretty and agreeable Rose and the probably sociopathic Sibyl. Harriet becomes a frequent guest, practically part of the family, not only reveling in their company but eager to help out. The Gillespies are not quite starving artists, as they own a small business and employ a maid, but as far as the local art world goes they are definitely on the lower rungs. Harriet tries, in particular, to help Ned.
Over time problems with the family emerge. Ned’s brother Kenny has a secret. Sibyl keeps demonstrating that there is something wrong with her. Annie and Elspeth are not the best of friends. When a kidnapping occurs, family strains come to the fore. When Harriet is accused of the crime, we have to wonder if there was something we missed.
Harris tempers her less than lovely look at late 19th Century Scotland with a bit of levity. She offers lightly comedic portrayals of Elspeth in particular, Ned’s sister Mabel and Harriet’s wealthy, but reclusive stepfather Ramsay. These critical views of characters are via the eyes of Harriet, who, we see, is less than the one hundred percent proper British lady the world sees. These are sufficient to generate slight grins but there is not a guffaw in sight. Clearly the intent is to show us something about Harriet and not effect raucous laughter. Harris offers less than complimentary views of reporters and the extant legal system as well.
For those looking for a bit of symbolism, 1933 Harriet names her greenfinches Layla and Majnum for star-crossed lovers of Arab legend. She also deconstructs the nests these birds make, shaking any eggs produced until they are no good. What are we to think this reveals about her behavior so many years back? Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
is mentioned, encouraged by a reference to a relation in Switzerland. Further, someone is framed for a small crime in the same way as happens in the older work. Later, Annie imagines herself as a bird looking in someone’s window, always an outsider, somewhat like the big guy. Surely a single woman of independent means in 1888 Glasgow is by definition an outsider. And Harriet’s affection for the very married Ned makes her an outsider to romance as well. Ned is also described as an outsider in the art world of Glasgow, echoing the theme. Is there any chance for outsiders to work their way in, to acceptance?
And this being Scotland, there must be a bit of Calvinist predestination in the air:
Try as we might we cannot escape the inescapable; we are all of us doomed to live out our destinies, like the servant in the fable, who hopes to elude death by fleeing to Samarkand, only to find upon his arrival in the town, that Death is there, waiting for him, after all.
Is everything pre-destined? Certainly the outcomes here seem governed by ungovernable forces.
Sibyl’s behavior with her father may or may not be highly Oedipal. Harriet’s residence for a time is a place called Merlinsfield which certainly suggests something magical. Another character has a Regan moment resonant of The Exorcist, but without the supernatural implications.
Harris draws the reader in with her proper but charming Harriet and a lively extended Scottish family. In addition, Harriet is a doer of good deeds, which certainly encourages our allegiance. But I felt that the movement of the story all but ceased when Harriet was brought to trial. Harriet in peril, after we have gotten to know her, can be gripping reading. And yet, I found that much of it was not. I kept hoping that there would be a big reveal about Harriet, references to clues that Harris had planted earlier in the story to show us that Harriet was not what we supposed her to be. But it was not to be, and thus the story petered out. The enthusiasm I had for the book early on became much reduced during these latter sections. Ultimately, while I enjoyed most of the journey, I found the ending disappointing. It felt like a lot of teasing for merely a kiss.
Overall, though, this is
an engaging read, and you may find the finale more to your liking than I did. Harris is clearly a talented writer and I am sure we can look forward to many more engaging reads from her.