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Jane Harris: Gillespie and I

The unreliable narrator has been a key theme of literature for many years, well before the twentieth century. However, it has been a favourite of twentieth and twenty-first centuries writers as well, so it is no surprise to find it in this book. However, Harris’ skill is to give us a narrator who may be totally unreliable, partially unreliable or totally reliable. We are left guessing as to how much she relates is true and how much untrue and, also, how much is exaggeration and how much the mild ravings of an eighty-year old woman. To make it even more fun, several of the characters our narrator introduces also tell their stories and their stories may be true or untrue or partially true, leaving us quite unsure of what the story is. If you like clarity and a strong sense of what is happening in your novels, this may not be the book for you.

The narrator is Harriet Baxter. At the start of the novel, in 1888, she is thirty-five and unmarried. She has been living in London, looking after her sick aunt, who dies before the start of the novel. Harriet decides that London holds only bad memories for her and, as she has no further ties there (her parents are both dead and she appears to have no siblings), she decides to move. She chooses to go to Glasgow, primarily because the Glasgow Exhibition is being held there. While out walking in Glasgow one day, she sees a commotion. A younger woman is sitting beside an older woman, who sees to be unconscious. Harriet had had St. John’s Ambulance First Aid training when her aunt was ill and rushes to the rescue. She determines that the woman seems unable to breathe and realises that there is something down her throat obstructing her breathing. Harriet puts her fingers down her throat and releases the obstruction, the woman’s false teeth. The older woman turns out to be Elspeth Gillespie and the younger woman her daughter-in-law, Annie. Harriet is invited to tea where she gets to know the rest of the family, in particular Annie’s husband and Elspeth’s son, Ned, an aspiring artist. It turns out that Harriet had already met Ned. There had been an art exhibition in London, at which some of Ned’s paintings has been exhibited and which Harriet had attended. While admiring one of his paintings, she had been brusquely moved out of the way by a curator leading a tour group. Ned had rushed to her rescue.

Harriet soon becomes friendly with the family, not least because she lives very near them. She helps Annie, is kind to her two children, Sybil and Rose, admires Ned’s paintings and is friendly with Elspeth and Mabel, Annie’s unmarried sister. It all looks very easy-going and normal, though, in retrospect, we might wonder whether her move to Glasgow and her meeting with the Gillespies was as innocent as it seemed. But, gradually, things start going wrong. Sybil seems to be behaving very badly indeed and Annie is understandably very concerned. There are issues between Elspeth and Annie and Annie and Ned do not always agree on how to deal with Sybil. Kenneth, Ned’s brother, who works in the shop they own and which is a key source of income for them, disappears. We and Harriet know why. Ned does not. All the while, Harriet, though clearly interested in Ned, seems sweet and helpful to everyone.

But when tragedy strikes, our view of Harriet, as well as the view of others of Harriet, changes. But the story is told by Harriet, so what do we believe? Harriet is telling her story in 1933, when she is eighty and more than forty years after the events she is describing. (She claims to be writing her memoirs.) Is she reliable in her account? As well as recounting the events involving the Gillespies, she also recounts her current life. She has a live-in companion/maid, called Sarah. But is Sarah what she seems? Harriet does not think so and, of course, we only have Harriet’s perspective. As Harris alternates the two periods, we gradually learn about Harriet’s life in 1888-1890 and her life in 1933. Are her behaviour and actions in 1933 indicative of her behaviour and actions in 1888-1890? It is Harris’ skill to have us wondering to the end what the truth is and where it lies and, indeed, what is truth.

Publishing history

First published 2011 by Faber and Faber