I really want to tell people about Jane Harris’s amazing novel Gillespie and I, but I’m afraid to reveal too much because its one of those books that becomes more magical the less you know about what actually happens. It is a mystery and the narrator is extremely unreliable. I knew that much before I started. But the thing about the unreliable narrator is that if you don’t know what they’re up to when you start reading, the revelation at the end about how much you’ve been tricked is mind-blowing.
Gillespie and I is narrated by Harriet Baxter, an English spinster. The book opens with Harriet, writing her memoirs fifty years after everything happened. She lives alone in a flat, with two finches and an assistant who helps her with research. This frame also includes a secondary story that helps to show what kind of person Harriet is. But anyway, back to 1888. Harriet traveled to Glasgow for an artists’ Exhibition. Shortly after her arrival, she meets the wife and mother of the artist Ned Gillespie and becomes a friend of the family. Strange things start to happen and Harris dots the narrative with clues that something is not right here. It’s hard to put your finger on it, even if you do know something about Victorian social norms*. And then, about a year after Harriet met the family, tragedy strikes.
I can say no more about the plot without ruining the story.
Not only did the plot and characterization of this book blow me away, but so did the writing style. Normally, I don’t like frames because they are distracting or clunky. They take me out of the narrative. But here, the frames give you clues as to what really happened and help you to read between the lines of Harriet’s version of events. The entire book is subtly written; the revelations at the end don’t hit you over the head. Instead, it’s like you’re looking at the narrative through a fog that gradually lifts, showing you the truth. It’s the sort of reveal that makes you want to start again at the beginning.
As soon as I finished Gillespie and I, I hunted up Harris’s other book on the Kindle store to see if it was a) as good as this book and b) if it was available. Gillespie and I was utterly amazing. I just stumbled upon it while I was weeding through GoodReads‘ recommendations. I picked it up because of the setting and because the online sample over at Amazon hooked me. I had no idea how dark this book would get. It’s an incredible piece of psychological drama**.
Update: I wrote the author’s name down in correctly. Her name is Jane, not Joan, Harris. Apologies.
* Everything I know comes from novels, so I have no idea how accurate my suspicions were.
** It is unbelievably hard to write rave reviews without sounding like a cheerleader. My apologies for all the superlatives.