Strengths: Loved how it was written in Bessy’s ‘voice’ and the turn of events.
Weaknesses: Took a little while to get used to Bessy’s language.
Why I read it: Loved Gillespie and I, part of the Faber and Faber Secrets and Lies collection.
Published: 2011 (originally 2006)
Publisher: Faber and Faber
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Last year, I read Jane Harris’ second novel, Gillespie and I, and simply adored it. So I went to seek out her first novel, The Observations. I was ecstatic to find that it was part of a series, Secrets and Lies, released by Faber and Faber. (Note that when I say series, I mean cool new covers and nice prices, not that the book is part of a series – wishful thinking. The series is set around novels involving well, secrets and lies).
The novel is set in Scotland in 1863 and told in the voice of Bessy, a young Irish girl determined to escape a life of poverty and immoral deeds by seeking employment as a maid. She chances upon a farm and is taken in by the Mistress, despite her lack of knowledge. Her new employer does ask her to do several things that seem strange to Bessy though – write down her thoughts and partake in some strange experiments. As Bessy wonders why she is doing these odd things, she finds that the previous maid died in strange circumstances. It all starts to go downhill from there with descents into madness, pranks and the past catching up with Bessy…
The most unique thing about The Observations is the way it is written. Harris uses Bessy’s voice to tell the story and it took a little while to get used to the way Bessy speaks and her slang. It is definitely worth preserving though because of the wonderful rollicking ride that the plot is. Harris evokes a wonderful sense of isolation in the house that makes the Gothic elements all the more deliciously spooky, especially the instructions and experiments of Bessy’s mistress.
Bessy is a wonderful character, exactly right to tell her tale in the first person. (There are some parts from her employer’s journal in the book too which are a wonderful juxtaposition to Bessy’s colourful, blunt speech.) She’s brutally honest, yet with enough mischief to send the plot into overdrive. I loved her rebuffs of Hector, a fellow servant aiming to get her into bed and some of her expressions brought a grin to my face.
Harris never fails to amaze me with her plots – they are always filled with abrupt turns and surprising endings. I can’t wait to read her next book!