Wednesday 17 January 2018

Review: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

(Faber, €14.99) Paperback

Irish-born and Glasgow-raised author Jane Harris first began writing in the early 1990s as a way to amuse herself while impoverished and living abroad. She found she enjoyed it so much that she decided to pursue it as a career.

Her 2007 debut novel The Observations was nominated for the Orange Prize, losing out to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half A Yellow Sun.

Harris's second novel, Gillespie And I, is a giant 500-page doorstop that somehow manages to skip along at a terrific pace. It tells the story of a now-elderly Harriet Baxter and her friendship with the Gillespie family some 40 years previously. Set in 1888, Harriet first meets the Gillespies by chance when she saves the family matriarch, Elspeth, from choking on her dentures. Harriet becomes fast friends with Elspeth's son, the artist Ned, his wife Annie and their two young children Rose and Sybil.

The story is told as memoir, switching between the years 1888 to 1890 and Harriet's old age in London in 1933. Harriet is a classic unreliable narrator and it's a joy to slowly become aware of this.

When tragedy strikes and leads to a criminal trial Harris's use of witness testimonies to reveal another side of Harriet is clever and deftly executed. We get a different insight into Harriet not as a caring friend but as a nosy spinster, overstepping the mark socially and being overly-familiar with a married man.

Harris's black sense of humour streaks subtly through the book, particularly apparent in Harriet's snobbishness and observations of class.

As with her previous book, Harris is preoccupied with themes of family but there are side-themes that explore more interesting topics such as the frustrations that vibrant, intelligent women like Annie Gillespie (a talented artist) would have faced in that era, her creativity thwarted by domesticity and the demands of motherhood. Sexuality is explored too, from how even within the socially accepted institution of marriage a full sexual life was frowned upon to how difficult it was to lead a fulfilling life as a gay man.

Harris calls to mind writers like Sarah Waters and Zoe Heller but while this book is immensely enjoyable, she doesn't quite achieve the resounding emotional depths that Waters and Heller do with their books.

Ultimately, this novel is too playful and stylised to have any deep emotional impact on the reader.

By the end the story felt too controlled and plotted, with the sense that it was running along rigid tracks that left no sense of possible diversions. And without that sense of possibility, it never quite overcomes the feeling of being an entertaining tale rather than an attempt to understand the human condition.

edel coffey

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