Set in Victorian Scotland, 35-year-old spinster Harriet Baxter is an independent Englishwoman who traveled from foggy London to the bright lights of Glasgow, in order to enjoy her newly earned independence from nursing her ailing aunt. An avid fan of art, she attended the International Exhibition to have a chance encounter with a young artist named Ned Gillespie, who at an early age destroyed his artwork and committed suicide. Through Ned and a chance rescue with Ned’s mother Elspeth, Harriet eventually became a trusted friend to the entire Gillespie Family, making herself a fixture in their lives. The accounts of her life and friendship with the Gillespies were written in a memoir account by the lone, elderly Harriet in her Bloomsbury home. Bearing that this is a Victorian mystery, you as a discriminating reader should be expecting the unexpected in this story, and Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I exactly illustrates that fact.
The story alternately switches scenes from the present to the memoir itself and back to the present again. At first I found the beginning a little slow as I was trying to find a connection between her present life and the memoir itself until I reached about quarter of the story. The memoir’s purpose from Harriet’s point of view was to commemorate the struggling artist Gillespie and to recognize him and his art, giving him the credit and fame that he deserved during that time. With a few clues provided during her present life — from craving cigarettes and liquor to seeing delusions of the household help tending to her and her home – it made me wonder if some parts of her memoir were actually credible. As a general knowledge we do know that at that age many or us may show or suffer signs of dementia and that our thoughts and memories may not be as keen as we thought unlike the times when we were younger.
Either that would be the case or there must be something else behind the nature of the rather descriptive, rich, and vivid memoir. Something unexpected and in certain cases, something a whole lot more sinister than meets the eye. It’s with this thought that I began to think if Harriet truly is a kindhearted independent well-to-do woman to a struggling young family or possibly a wolf in sheep’s clothing. For instance, unexpected, abnormal things within the family began to occur, in particular, Ned’s elder daughter Sybil. With such events going on I already had a feeling that the story of her friendship and life with the Gillespies isn’t going to have a happy ending, emphasizing that the ending would be a lot more menacing than tragic. The climax of Ned’s younger daughter Rose’s kidnapping and eventual death really hit my reader’s trigger, with this criminal tragedy leading the narrator Harriet as the prime suspect, most notably an English prime suspect facing Scottish Law.
I won’t say any more in terms of the novel’s plot, but this particular novel is very well worth reading. This is one of the books that I would recommend for open discussions within book clubs. When I read the past reviews from creditable publications such as Kirkus Reviews this book really peaked my interest, and I felt honored to write a review for this book. Harris’ style of writing isn’t just clever and witty but so vividly detailed and evocative that the setting, its descriptions of the scenes, not to mention the inclusion of two old maps of 19th Century Glasgow (which gave me a few clues to the setting of the story overall) easily hooked me to the story. With an open mind and patience, Gillespie and I would really pull you in to deep contemplation, particularly regarding to the “I” from the title.
The book reminded me a lot of two other books (written by English authors in fact) that I truly enjoyed reading: Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Kate Summerscale’s non-fiction The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher or The Murder at Road Hill House. I also read from the previous reviews that Harris’ debut novel The Observations also has a similar feel and tone to her second. Gillespie and I is actually the very first novel that I’ve read by Harris, and because I found this book enjoyable I look forward to reading The Observations in the near future. Just with Gillespie and I alone, the name of Jane Harris should be added alongside mystery greats such as Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, and Arthur Conan Doyle.