Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

A masterclass in ambiguity…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Gillespie and IElderly Harriet Baxter sits in her London home, thinking back to when she was a young woman, visiting Glasgow for the International Exhibition of 1888. There, she fell in with the Gillespie family, and became involved in an incident that was to impact both her and them for the rest of their lives. She slowly tells the reader the tale…

Slowly being the operative word. If this book had been half its length it would have been wonderful. Instead, it crawls along at a toe-curlingly slow pace, with every moment of every day described in excessive detail. I was listening to the audiobook, which had the unfortunate effect that I couldn’t skim read as I think I tend to do when reading over-detailed print books. With audio, each word is given equal weight and this, for me, really highlights when an author has fallen self-indulgently in love with her own creation and has forgotten that the poor reader might prefer the story to move along at a speed slightly above the glacial. There! That’s my complaint over, so now on to the good points, of which there are many.

Harriet is a wonderful narrator, unreliable in the extreme, not terribly likeable, but compellingly ambiguous. Although it takes a long time to get there, we learn from foreshadowing that at some point there will be a trial in the story, although we don’t know who will be tried or for what, or whether whoever it is will be found guilty. But we do know that the outcome of the trial left Harriet notorious, and that she is now telling her version of events as a counter to a book which has come out making her out to be some kind of villainous monster.

Ned is a young painter, scraping a living out of his art but yet to really make his name. Harris has set her book at the time of the “Glasgow School” – a period when Glasgow was for a few decades a major artistic hub in the fields of painting and architecture particularly. Ned and his fellow artists are not in the first rank of this movement – rather they are shown as a kind of wider, secondary grouping inspired by the artistic buzz around the city. Harris doesn’t go into the art of the period in any detail, but uses it to provide a very authentic background to her group of artists and hangers-on, and Ned’s work is clearly influenced by the realism that was a feature of the real painters of the movement.

Taking tea at The Glasgow Exhibition, 1888 by Sir John Lavery, a painter of the Glasgow School

Harriet, although she would never admit it, is clearly obsessed by Ned, and jealous of Annie and their children for taking up so much of his time and attention. Harriet would claim that it’s Ned’s work that interests her – her belief that he has the talent to become one of the major artists of his day, with a little help from an altruistic friend. The reader suspects her feelings towards him might be little less lofty – a little more earthy, in fact. She soon becomes an intimate friend of the family, though one suspects that the family may be less thrilled by this than Harriet is.

Harriet’s voice is excellent, and Anna Bentinck’s first-rate performance does the character full justice (along with all the other characters, to whom she gives a myriad of authentic-sounding Scottish accents). As a single lady past the first flush of youth in the Victorian era, Harriet is of course outwardly prim and proper, but her inward thoughts allow us to know her mind is not quite as pure as a young lady’s should be! She is often very funny, usually unintentionally, and Harris is fabulous at letting the reader read between the lines of the picture of innocent kindliness Harriet is trying to paint of herself. The other characters are all presented through Harriet’s biased eyes, so that we can’t be sure if poor Annie is as ineffective a mother as we see, or if Sybil, the eldest child, is really as monstrously badly behaved as she seems. We can’t even be sure if Ned has any real talent. What we do know for certain is that Harriet is lonely and alone, and desperately seeking some kind of human relationship that will allow her to feel she has a place in the world. This means that even when she’s at her most manipulative, we can’t help having some level of sympathy for her circumstances. It’s all a masterclass in ambiguity, and even by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved Harriet or hated her, wanted to give her a comforting hug or throw stones at her. I’m very, very glad she’s not my (mythical) husband’s friend though…

Jane Harris
Jane Harris

When the story proper finally begins, well into the book, it becomes quite dark. Up to that point, Harriet has been at worst a little pitiable – a woman repressed by her society who is desperately seeking some way to validate her existence, even if only to herself. From there on (and I’m deliberately being vague to avoid spoilers) the reader has to decide if she is a monster or a victim. The beauty of the way Harris plays it is that it’s quite possible to believe she is both. Older Harriet, whose story we learn in short segments throughout the book, is a rather heart-breaking picture of the loneliness of a spinster, somewhat shunned by the world partly because of her notoriety but also simply because of her age.

So a wonderful portrait of an ambiguous character set against an authentic background of the Glasgow art movement – had it not been for the truly excessive, even though well written, padding, this would undoubtedly have been a five star read. As it is, four stars, and a plea for editors to take a stronger line with authors who fall too much in love with their own wordsmithery.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

36 thoughts on “Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

  1. Harriet does sound like an absolutely fascinating character, FictionFan. And that ambiguity about who she really is is appealing. It sounds as though this is a character study as much as anything else, and I like those. I know what you mean about the length, though. It’s funny; I seldom use audio books. So I most likely do my share of skimming when a book is a bit weighty. I can see, though, how you’d really notice a book’s length if you do listen….something to think about, so thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a real drawback of audiobooks and makes me very conscious of authors who maintain a good pace all the way through a long book, like Sansom, and others who simply get caught up in long passages that add nothing to either plot or setting, like this one. However, the strengths definitely outweigh the weaknesses in the end, though I admit I came near to abandoning it about a third of the way through.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’m still not a dedicated enough audio listener to be able to tolerate a really slow book – it takes me weeks to listen to them anyway, so if each session doesn’t move the plot along a bit, I lose interest. I read in much longer sessions, so it’s not such a problem, although as you know I regularly complain about excessive padding in read books too! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds great, the fact you found it overly long isn’t especially putting me off, I suppose I have become used to listening to extremely long books, though I sometimes need to rewind a bit if I can sense my attention beginning to wander. I also like Anna Bentinck as a narrator, she reads a variety of genres and is good at creating different voices for characters without going over the top. It sounds as though this book is a fascinating character studdy, I’ll certainly check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I still struggle to maintain concentration with long audiobooks though I’m definitely getting better at it. But since I only listen for short burst of half an hour or so, it becomes really obvious when a book has stalled and the plot isn’t moving. But I suspect you won’t find it quite such a drag since you’re better at audiobooks, and other than that this one is great! Harriet is a wonderful character – even if you hate her, you won’t be able not to feel some sympathy for her… 😀

      Like

  3. I think I’d have the same problem with an audiobook, that business of not being able to scan through the dull/boring parts. Still, Harriet sounds like a fascinating character, and perhaps Harris felt all those words were needed to flesh her out. (On second thought, what happened to editors trying to streamline a book so it would be better received?!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It really makes me conscious of how much I probably skim when I’m reading the written word – audiobooks regularly irritate me by not getting on with the story fast enough! I’m getting better at them with practice, but there are still plenty of books that are better read, I think – and plenty that need serious trimming!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Slow crawl? 😬😬 Hmmm. Though Harriet sounds like an interesting narrator, I’m not sure I would make it through this boo in my present mental state. I would need to detox from the video game I’m playing for a solid week probably to get to the state where I could enjoy this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, so long as you win, that’s all that matters! 😀 Yes, Harriet is a great character, but I do think that, even though the narration was great, this is one that might work better on the page, where you can zoom through the padded bits…

      Like

  5. I read this a few years ago and loved it, so I’m glad you enjoyed it overall. I can’t remember having a problem with the slow pace, but I read the print version so maybe I was skimming the slower bits!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve lost patience with long books unless they move at a fair place, so my bias is showing and audiobooks definitely make slowness stand out more for me. But I loved Harriet as a character, even if I didn’t love her quite so much as a person… 😉

      Like

    • Yes, I find it’s most likely to happen in historical fiction too, possibly because the author has done all her research and thinks the reader should be as fascinated by all the details as she is… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This sounds interesting though I’m. It sure I want to get into another slow moving book right now! I am just realizing the narrator of my current read may not be as reliable as I thought!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I seem to have been stuck in a glut of long books the last few months, and I can feel that my patience has worn even thinner than usual! Haha, you can never trust those pesky first-person narrators… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  7. OH NO this truly is a tragedy. I love the sounds of this one, Harriet sounds like a real hoot, but I can’t stand the thought that this is too long for it’s own good-it’s enough to put me off, that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d be sorry to put you off because Harriet is a wonderful character and loads of people don’t seem to have found it too long. But my patience for overlong books has worn very thin at the moment…

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ha! Funnily enough most of the overlong books I’ve been reading recently date from a few years ago – I might be wrong but I think the trend may have passed! Hurrah for shorter, faster books! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • I do wonder if I’d have been complaining about the length if I’d read it rather than listening to it, so I hope you find you sail through the paper version! Harriet is an excellent character – well worth getting to know… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  8. My thoughts echo yours entirely, FF. I read this one – a hard copy – and I tend not to skim. (Or at least I didn’t then. A consequence of the pandemic seems to be that I’m more hardhearted these days and skimmed quite happily this morning 🤔) Thus, reading it in full was quite torturous at times; it really is painfully and unnecessarily slow. I assumed the pace was to keep us guessing as to the nature of Harriet and I also wondered if that meandering style was part of her character. And of course, as an elderly spinster she had a lot of time to spare! More’s the pity for us readers! 😄 I did enjoy it though not enough, it seems, to have sought our Harris’s other work.
    Great review, as always!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad I’m not alone – sometimes I feel I’ve just become too impatient for slower books. I rarely consciously skim when reading but I think I must do it unconsciously because I really notice when a book has too much detail when listening to an audiobook. Someone needs to invent a way of skimming them too! Before I read this, I read her earlier book, The Observations, and absolutely loved it. I don’t remember feeling it was too long at all – maybe because I actually read it. So don’t be put off her – I’m hoping she learns the art of cutting out all the extraneous bits eventually! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This was a book I really enjoyed but think it might read better on the page rather than in audio. The way Harriet spins out her story struck me as being part of who she is and made how later events can be seen, that much more of a shock.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I do think audio really highlights when a book is slow, especially when you’re a slow listener, like me. I read much more quickly so probably don’t notice it so much in that form. But it was well worth reading – once it finally got going!

      Like

    • I am so tired of overlong books! This one might not have felt quite so long if I’d been reading rather than listening, but the first half especially is about 90% scene setting to 10% plot. Not my preferred ratio!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’m glad you enjoyed this book. I read it a couple of years ago and did enjoy the complexities and shifting perspectives in this story. I had to look back to see whether I read or listened to the book, and I did listen to it. I can’t remember how I felt about the length…

    Liked by 1 person

    • The second half was much better – still slow but not quite so painfully. But I really didn’t think I was going to be able to stick with it after about the first third – watching paint dry seemed like the more exciting option. However, she captures the voices of her characters so well, and Harriet is unforgettable, so I’m glad I stuck it out in the end.

      Liked by 1 person

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.