Strengths: Excellent plot twists, Jane Harris is excellent at sowing seeds of doubt as you read this.
Weaknesses: Start was a little slow
Why I read it: Longlisted for The Orange Prize (robbed of the shortlist!)
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Setting: Glasgow, Scotland and London, England
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
If you liked this, try: Atonement by Ian McEwan
I’ve delayed writing this review for so long…I hope that it’s not your heart sinking that I hear. It’s just that I’m finding it difficult to write a review that would do this fantastic, wonderful, brilliant, cracking book justice. Everyone should read this book. Right now. Go. Do it.
…So you need a little more convincing, eh? This book was long listed for the 2012 Orange Prize, but by some silly, silly error it didn’t make the shortlist. Completely inexplicable. This is the type of book you carry around reading while making vain attempts to vacuum the house. (Or perhaps that’s just me…) The plot has the kinds of twists and turns that a roller coaster would be jealous about. The characterisation is thorough, but with just a pinch of elusiveness to keep us guessing as to whether we’ve judged each character correctly. The atmosphere of Glasgow during the Exhibition is painstakingly recreated, as is the later scenes in London.
The plot centres around Harriet Baxter, a spinster who decides to go to Glasgow post the death of an elderly family member. She enjoys the Exhibition and in an odd twist of fate, saves a lady from choking by dentures. There she is drawn into the world of the Gillespie family – Ned, the painter; Annie, his wife, their two children and Ned’s mother. From the start of the relationship, cracks appear to form in the Gillespie family. Sibyl, Ned and Annie’s daughter, is an eerie character, getting up to strange mischief. Annie begins to paint Harriet’s portrait, while Harriet becomes Ned’s champion. The building of the friendship, while a little slow, is imperative to what happens later. After a mysterious episode, the friendship is turned on its head and accusations begin to fly, with damning consequences for all involved.
The narrative shifts from Harriet’s time to Glasgow, to as she writes her memoirs as an elderly lady in London. Harris is an expert in unfolding the parts of Harriet’s character slowly and delicately until the reader is never too sure of what is truth and what is fiction. The story of Harriet’s new assistant in London runs a lovely parallel to the downfall of her relationship with the Gillespies.
You might think this sounds all a bit gothic, but Harris also treats us to some wonderfully funny characters such Ned’s mother Elspeth (who continually calls Harriet ‘Herriet’). There are some moving moments of friendship and the Harriet’s belief that she really, truly is doing the right thing keep the sinister moments under the covers.
An absolute masterpiece. Now go and read it.