Sunday, January 1, 2012

Gillespie and I

You know you worry. You adored an author’s first novel but since there is no track record yet –what will #2 be like? Will it be the say-it-isn’t-so short story collection? In my opinion that is the ultimate betrayal and yet the all too common sophomore effort by the literary.  It might be nonfiction. That isn’t fabulous but it beats the short story collection by about 800% even if it’s collected essays.  Sometimes it’s just a bad or lackluster novel but other times (clue the angelic choir) it’s fabulous. Which brings me to novel #2 by Jane Harris, Gillespie and I. The first novel by Harris, The Observations, was an overwhelming surprise and delight. I have been on pins and needles about Gillespie and I ever since I heard it was coming out in January 2012.

Like The Observations, Gillespie and I is a historical novel with otherworldly overtones set during the Victorian era but this time the action takes place primarily in the city of Glasgow. Also like her first novel Harris creates a strong heroine for her new book but where Bessy Buckley was as up front and forward a woman as her time permitted, in Gillespie and I Harriet Baxter leads an entirely interior life. Harriet is an upright spinster who becomes enchanted by the talented young painter Ned Gillespie. She is drawn in to his family life through her own loneliness and the by what she perceives as the needs of the Gillespie family. Harriet has the idea that she can help further Ned’s career and organize his home life.
For a time Harriet is seen as a Godsend to most of the Gillespie family. She is a potential patron, a selfless friend and a buffer against the outside world. Still from the beginning of the relationship between Harriet and the family there are questions. Is Harriet obsessed with Ned? Is the Gillespie clan too willing to take advantage of Harriet’s friendship? Are the unstable relationships within the Gillespie family leading them all into an inescapable catastrophe? As the uncertainties mount so does the foreboding that something wicked this way comes.

In Gillespie and I, Harris tells the story in flashback. When the novel begins we see Harriet when she first meets the Gillespies and as an old woman writing her memoirs in the 1930’s. In both cases our impression of her is that of a competent, independent, self possessed woman but as Harris details what happened in between each of these introductions we see the toll the past has taken on Harriet.

There are enough similarities between Gillespie and I and The Observations to make you jump into Gillespie and I with a happy sigh. The author of the debut novel that you loved has not abandoned the world she built so well in her first book just shifted the time a bit. Then as you read the differences pile up—in a good way. There is a level of thoughtfulness, of more careful plotting and more nuanced characters in Gillespie and I than there was in The Observations.

We already have proof that Jane Harris can write fresh and authoritative historical fiction. Check. She can invent original, historically appropriate characters whose self assurance she manipulates to great effect. Check. What I learned in Gillespie and I is that Harris has a wonderful gift for slowly parceling out the suspenseful details in a novel while never making the book feel like it is just a mystery story. I was positive I knew where things were headed in Gillespie and I but I was completely and happily wrong. Yea!

P.S. I think the cover on Gillespie and I is lovely but I fail to see the connection between the art work and the story.

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