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Gillespie and I : a novel by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I : a novel (original 2011; edition 2012)

by Jane Harris

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5876316,791 (3.97)1 / 364
Rating: √2

The Book Report: There isn't anything I can say that won't be a spoiler here. The book description from Amazon says:
“As she sits in her Bloomsbury home with her two pet birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter recounts the story of her friendship with Ned Gillespie—a talented artist whose life came to a tragic end before he ever achieved the fame and recognition that Harriet maintains he deserved.
In 1888, young Harriet arrives in Glasgow during the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter with Ned, she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in their lives. But when tragedy strikes, culminating in a notorious criminal trial, the certainty of Harriet’s new world rapidly spirals into suspicion and despair.”

I think even that is a bit more than enough.

My Review: If my rating this book with an irrational, unknowable, eternally expanding number doesn't tell you everything you need to know about how I feel about the book, here it is in one sentence:

Massive amounts of fun on more levels than amusing, fun-to-read books ordinarily have. ( )
2 vote richardderus | Jun 13, 2012 |
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This book was chosen as our Book Group read, partly because Glasgow Library Service lent us 8 copies on long loan & partly because two of us had it on our wishlist having read the author's first novel: The Observations.

The more I think about this book, the more difficult I'm finding it to describe/review etc. I guess I should start with the basics:

Harriet Baxter is an English woman who heads north to Glasgow, following her aunt's death, to visit the International Exhibition of 1888. There she meets the Gillespie family and quickly becomes part of their 'circle' and life. Ned Gillespie is an artist just on the fringes of 'The Glasgow Boys' and is married to Annie with two children Sybil and Rose. There are other family members and friends, but it's Harriet's involvement with Ned that the story is really centred around. From here, it's difficult to describe without giving too much away.

The book is written as a memoir, so you meet Harriet in 1933 as she writes about her time in Glasgow with the Gillespies and as you read it, your perceptions shift and you begin to wonder about what you've already read and what it all really means. (I read one review that suggested it was only good in 'retrospect' which I found a little harsh, but not entirely wrong) I did 'cotton on' fairly early that things were not all they seemed, but that was partly due to attending a reading by the author at the Edinburgh Book Festival - more because of some of the audience questions than the author giving the game away! I don't think I'm spoiling anything by mentioning that here.

Someone has also said that it has similarities with 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' but really that's only because a crime is committed and a court case ensues and the Victorian setting is reminiscent. I think it's a better book than that, even though I did enjoy reading 'Mr Whicher'.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and didn't feel that it was too long despite it being 500 pages. It did take me longer than usual to read, but that's because it wasn't handbag/train/bus friendly being such a sizeable tome! When I did get chance to sit and read, I flew through it.
( )
  Cassandra2020 | Jan 24, 2016 |
Bought on the strength of the publisher's name, I was sorely disappointed by this novel. This is not literary fiction. It is very poorly written pulp fiction. Extremely wordy and full of clichés. ( )
  edwinbcn | Oct 19, 2015 |
Several of you had very positive things to say about this book when it came out a few years ago. So I bought a copy, but (like many other books) it got put on the shelf. With my renewed effort to read off my shelves this year, I decided to pull it down. This book started a little slow for me. We spend a lot of time getting to know Harriet Baxter, an unmarried woman who visits Glasgow for an extended period of time during the International Exhibition in 1888. Harriet becomes friends with the Gillespie family after saving matriarch Elspeth from choking. She becomes a frequent visitor to the home of Annie and Ned Gillespie, Elspeth's daughter-in-law and son. Ned is an artist whose reputation is on the rise, and although he declines the commission to paint Harriet's portrait, he comes to trust her advice. But when tragedy strikes the Gillespie family, we come to realize that perception is not always reality.

The pace of the book picks up as we are pulled forward in pursuit of "the truth." Occasionally, the story flashes forward to Harriet's life in 1933 as she reflects back on her time in Glasgow, adding another layer to our perception. In the end, I was enthralled by the way that Harris brings the reader into the story by making our perceptions a part of the narrative. This is a book that made me want to go back and re-read it so that I could pay attention to how Harris works her magic. ( )
1 vote porch_reader | Feb 8, 2015 |
It just didn't seem like it was going anywhere. I disliked Harriet and found her oblivious. I have too many books to read to waste time enduring one I'm not enjoying. ( )
  Violetthedwarf | Oct 23, 2014 |
It just didn't seem like it was going anywhere. I disliked Harriet and found her oblivious. I have too many books to read to waste time enduring one I'm not enjoying. ( )
  Violetthedwarf | Oct 23, 2014 |
I think on the back of gone girl and the luminaries, I've been stuck in bit of 'unreliable narrator' groove. Time to get out and explore other genres! I didn't enjoy this as much as anticipated, probably because of the above. ( )
  celerydog | Jul 3, 2014 |
Read about 100 pages and was unengaged by this rambling text. Yes, I figured out the narrator was likely unreliable...just found the whole premise--on a Glasgow street, "spinster" assists older woman who's choking and becomes (inappropriately) involved with the woman's family, one of whom (Ned Gillespie) is a talented artist--a bit hard to swallow. Furthermore, I wasn't too interested in the perverse doodles of Sybil, the artist's child, or the sexual escapades of his brother. Didn't have the time or interest for this leisurely and (as far as I read) seemingly directionless narrative. I kept waiting for SOMETHING of import to happen.
  fountainoverflows | Apr 28, 2014 |
I missed my stop on the U-Bahn because of Gillespie and ] and almost missed it a second time a few hours later. It's that kind of book; a meaty Victorian novel - Victorian in both setting and style - with an involving plot that runs the gamut from gently bred English spinsters and comfortable domestic life to kidnapping and sensational court cases. Set against the background of Glasgow in 1888, Jane Harris's second novel is about Harriet Baxter and how she became involved with the family of an up-and-coming Glaswegian artist Ned Gillespie. Decades later, she sits down to write about her friendship with the Gillespies and the scandal that shocked all of Scotland.

Harris is good with the historical detail, and really good at creating characters who breathe. But where she really excels is in telling a story from the point of view of a seemingly secondary character, someone who might not see the same things that the other characters do, or it might be that she is altering the tale to suit herself. If you dislike ambiguity in a novel, this one is not for you, but if you like the twist that looks like it's from out of nowhere, but that also fits the story in an organic way if you set the story upside down, then you'll enjoy this one. ( )
9 vote RidgewayGirl | Mar 18, 2014 |
Last year, Jane Harris’ second novel, Gillespie and I, officially became the book I was too scared to read. Would I like it too much? Too little? All the key components were there; 19th century, Scotland, strong female character, what wasn’t there to like? With all the rave reviews out there failure seemed impossible. So I denied myself for almost two years after going to hear Harris speak at Waterstones back in 2011. I finally took the plunge on our Hebridean mini-holiday last summer only to emerge blinking into the sunlight feeling completely bewildered and unsure what to think. It’s only now with a bit of space that I’ve been able to make sense of whether I really loved this book or not. Boy did I want to love it….

Harriet Baxter is an elderly woman living alone with her songbirds, sad memories and paranoia. The memoirs we read within this novel are her account of the intimate life and times of Scottish artist Ned Gillespie and his small family; a family Harriet had the fortune (or misfortune, we may discover) to meet by chance when staying up in Glasgow, the bosom of which she remains in for many months to come. Using the famed Glasgow International Exhibition as the rich setting for Harriet’s drama, we witness the gradual disintegration of the lives and sanity of those she has come to know and love, culminating in, horror of horrors, a full-blown criminal trial.

After much a musing I have come to the firm conclusion that, after hearing masses and masses about this novel from various quarters, I built it so far up in my mind that anything short of perfection was always going to be a disappointment.

Jane Harris is a wonderful writer and this plot-heavy tale with its emotive nuances, juxtaposed with the shock-factor of the final court scenes kept me hooked from start to finish. This is an imaginative, completely unique tale that really can’t be compared with anything else I have ever read or even heard of, told by a seemingly intelligent, forward thinking young Victorian woman, complete with her huge foibles and failures.

Therein lies my problem. Although Harris is wonderfully clever with her narrator (the most unreliable I have ever encountered); who paints herself as the Gillespie family’s guardian angel and whose primary hobby seems to be sweeping undesirable truths under the carpet, she was, when all is said and done, really rather irritating.

Who cares? You might say. Well, ordinarily I might find such a carefully constructed, busybody character such as Harriet deeply convincing and satisfyingly disturbing however, the obsessive/possessive nature of her relationship with ‘her artist’ simply didn’t convince me. As a character Ned Gillespie seemed rather indifferent to her presence and much more likely to throw the woman out of his home than allow her to become so close with his family. Obsessive love and psychosis can make for a splendid novel but, for all Harriet’s acerbic wit and grand sweeping assertions, something felt amiss for me and I really am sorry for it.

One certainty, however, is that Jane Harris possesses the incredibly powerful skills to confuse, confound and mesmerise. This is an intelligent novel that offers us no easy answers and, in a way, they are the best because surely it is literature’s job to make us sit back, think, and not take anything or anybody for granted. True, I had several crises of faith throughout but, if this is a true reflection of Harris’ skills then her first novel; The Observations, really does need to be next on my list.

http://relishreads.com/2014/01/04/gillespie-and-i/ ( )
  Lucy_Rock | Jan 4, 2014 |
Gillespie And I (first published in 2011) is the second novel by Jane Harris. Her acclaimed debut novel , The Observations (first pub. 2006) was also dramatised for Radio 4 as a ten-part serial by dramatist Chris Dolan and producer/director Bruce Young in 2007. Producer/director: Bruce Young

1/10. Victorian gothic mystery by Jane Harris. In 1888, Harriet Baxter, an art-loving Englishwoman, arrives in Glasgow for the city's International Exhibition. She meets the Scottish painter, Ned Gillespie, and his wife, Annie - but tragedy is about to strike the Gillespies. Dramatised by Chris Dolan.

2/10. Ned enters a competition to paint the Queen's portrait.

3/10. Annie begins work on Harriet's portrait, but young Sybil is acting strangely.

4/10. At the home of the artist Ned Gillespie, a New Year party goes horribly wrong - and young Sybil gets the blame.

5/10. Young Sybil's erratic behaviour continues to cause concern, when tragedy strikes.

6/10. The Gillespies' younger daughter Rose has been kidnapped. Meanwhile, her elder sister Sibyl is recovering after setting fire to herself with paraffin.

7/10. The police arrest a suspect for the kidnap of Rose Gillespie.

8/10. Three accused go on trial, but two of the kidnappers are determined to lay the blame on the person they claim is the ringleader.

9/10. The court considers the identity of the veiled woman who lured Rose away from her family.

10/10. As the trial reaches its climax, young Sybil is called to give evidence. ( )
  mimal | Jan 1, 2014 |
Sadly, this book is merely ok. It starts out great and about halfway through it slows down. The end is just an end no real climax which is disappointing. Then there is the story which is essentially if 8
I had done it by oj set place in Scotland featuring a spinster mastermind. Really not worth the time it took to read. ( )
  sarahzilkastarke | Nov 20, 2013 |
I loved this book. Jane Harris takes us on a journey back to the Glasgow Exhibition in the late 19th century, where we meet Miss Harriet Baxter and the Gillespie family. The pages kept on flying by and I found myself fascinated by the story. Harriet cleaves herself to the Gillespies and has an especially soft spot for the husband, Ned Gillespie, who is also a painter. Through a horrible event, which destroys the friendship and probably the Gillespie family, I began to wonder if things were as they first seemed. I kept on backtracking and re-reading passages to see if my memory was correct. It was one of those books that I could have read all day long, if life hadn't intervened.
( )
  kingarooski | Oct 18, 2013 |
Londoner Harriet Baxter, the most unreliable of narrators, tells the story of her time in Glasgow in the late 1800s (she is now an old woman writing her memoir in 1933). She arrives during the Glasgow International Exhibition and quickly befriends the family of Ned Gillespie, wildly talented, but virtually unknown, painter. Since there is a major twist in the novel, it is best not to discuss the plot any further.

Aside from a tedious court room scene that takes up nearly a quarter of the novel (or, at least, it felt that way), I thoroughly enjoyed this - a wonderful sense of place, fascinating characters (particularly Harriet), and a very compelling story (it is quite a page-turner). Eek! I can’t say anything else, because I’m trying to avoid spoilers. Anyway, I recommend it. It’s terribly entertaining and wonderfully well-written. ( )
1 vote DorsVenabili | Jul 25, 2013 |
As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved.

Back in 1888, the young, art-loving Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes - leading to a notorious criminal trial - the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disintegrate into mystery and deception...

'A story that holds you in its grip and makes you skip ahead but circle back again for more of the same - literary crack cocaine.' -- Scotland on Sunday

I would have to give away too much of the twisty-turny plot of this amazing book for a satisfactory review hence the reason the below probably makes no sense at all.

This is a novel that really makes you think; you ponder every nuance and collect snippets of information along the way; decide ‘yes I know exactly what is going on here’ and before you get to the bottom of page you are re evaluating …again. The ability of the author to switch from chilling forbodence to laugh out load (albeit dark) humour is brilliantly executed.

Is Harriet Baxter the mother of all unreliable narrators?

On reading the final page (sentence actually) I immediately flipped back to the first chapter; reread it and I swear I had palpitations....Enjoy
( )
  jan.fleming | May 2, 2013 |
This is a strangely interesting book. It begins as a memoire by a lady in her late seventies about her close relationship with a famous artist (Ned Gillespie), but is in reality the story of how she befriends the Gillespie family, is arrested for the kidnapping of their youngest daughter, and her subseuent decline. ( )
  CarterPJ | Dec 29, 2012 |
I picked this novel up in an airport bookshop hoping it would keep me so engrossed I wouldn’t notice the length of the flight. It seemed it would tick all the boxes – historical setting, a sense of mystery and it came from the pen of an author whose name I kept hearing though I had never read nothing by Jane Harris myself.

The story reminded me of Willkie Collins’ sensation and mystery stories and is told at a similar fast pace. It’s narrated by Harriet Baxter, an elderly spinster who recalls a chance encounter 45 years previously with Ned Gillespie – a talented artist who we are soon informed, died before his fame was fully recognised. Harriet meets him again during a visit to the International Exhibition in Glasgow in 1888 – and quickly becomes close friends with the Gillespie family. Dark shadows hover over their somewhat Bohemian home as one of the daughters begins to behave in an alarmingly malicious way towards her sibling and other members of the household. And then Harriet finds herself propelled into a family tragedy and a notorious court case.

The period atmosphere was convincing. Harriet’s recollections of the past come with lots of detail about houses, dresses, domestic routines as well as the atmosphere of the exhibition ground. Unlike many other novels with historical settings, Harris’ manages to avoid dialogue that feels flat and clunky with anachronisms.

The key to this novel however lies not in what we are told but more in what we are not told. First person narrators in novels are frequently unreliable witnesses or interpreters. Harriet Baxter is a master of deception. She portrays herself as a generous-hearted person yet is prone to make waspish comments about the other women in the Gillespie household. She believes herself to be uniquely positioned to tell the truth about the unrecognised genius of Ned Gillespie and set the record straight about the events in which she was enmeshed as a young woman. But her approach is somewhat elliptical. She makes frequent dark allusions to tragedies yet to be revealed. ”If only we had known then what the future held in store,” she says early on. Harriet Baxter is such a master of hints and suggestions however that the only way the reader does in fact get to know what really occurred is by following the breadcrumb trail of those clues and by reading between the lines. By the end, you almost feel that you have to read it again for everything to fall into place.

If I had a gripe with the novel it lay in the ending. It didn’t so much end as just seem to peter out as if it had run out of steam. I didn’t feel cheated because the novel had done exactly what I needed it to do – keep be engaged so I didn’t notice the cramped and confined conditions of my journey. But I did expect it to come to some form of a resolution.

Now, with the benefit of a few months gap, I can see that instead of this being a weakness of the novel, it was in fact one of its strengths. Harris, like her narrator, is an arch manipulator, leading me through the labyrinth of her novel and making me believe that all would be revealed. But like Harriet Baxter, she leaves me to work out the truth. ( )
1 vote Mercury57 | Oct 21, 2012 |
Hugely entertaining! The character of the first-person narrator remains entirely consistent throughout, which is a real tribute to the skills of the author. As other reviewers have noted, Harris's storytelling style is somewhat similar to that of Sarah Waters, another novelist whose works I've enjoyed. ( )
  sallysvenson | Aug 26, 2012 |
If you are reading this, I would strongly recommend that you also consider the many fine and highly positive reviews that have been posted of this Orange Prize long-listed book. I just do not fully agree, but won’t belabor the point beyond a few brief comments. Although I found this novel to be skillfully written, populated by interesting characters and an entertaining enough read, its underlying premise struck me as formulaic.

***Spoiler Alert*** From the beginning, the role of Harriet as unreliable narrator, the foil of a mischievous, disturbed child, and elements of the plot reminded me very strongly of Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger. It seemed obvious early on in the book where things were headed. But due to the author’s ability to build tension, I resisted this foreshadowing and instead waited for the unexpected twist that I was sure would come, but never did.

I ultimately both enjoyed and was disappointed by this book. ( )
  Linda92007 | Aug 17, 2012 |
"Gillespie and I" is the best novel I've read this year and quite possibly, in a few years. I don't want to say much as the unfolding of events is the reading joy that lies within. I will, however, say that this is one nightmare-producting little number. Harriet Baxter will get under your skin in a way few literary protagonists will. I got the creepy crawlies a time or two and suddenly had the urge to not divulge anything personal to anyone I did not know well. The marketing is a little misleading in that the happy cover and blurb made me think it was a Jane Austen-esque romp through Glasgow and London, with reflections on a painter's life. Holy cow, was I wrong. This is a very intense psychological thriller that kept me both flinching and guessing until the end. Harris is a masterful writer, especially how she would take one set of facts and write in various viewpoints, all of which seemed logical and possible. I did not give this book 5-stars because the trial was a bit fake (but I'm an attorney and a harsh critic, so take that with a grain of salt). I've heard masterpiece floating around and I agree, this is one of the best reading experiences I've had in memory. Keep the lights on when you hunker down with it, but definitely give it a try. Highly recommended. ( )
1 vote CarolynSchroeder | Aug 4, 2012 |
This has had so many good reviews on LT. I should say to start that I didn't find it so mind-blowingly good as some reviewers but a very good read nevertheless. I read it quite quickly on the beach and I do feel that it would have been better read more slowly over a longer period. Certainly it warrants re-reading and I am quite tempted to do this in the not too distant future, to see what (if any) clues I missed to the development of the story.

In 1933 Miss Harriet Baxter, a spinster aged eighty, looks back on her relationship with the Glaswegian painter Ned Gillespie. Told in a series of flashbacks to the 1880's, the main narrative is interspersed with the story of Harriet's issues with her companion in the 1930's (which may or may not be connected with the events of 50 years previously). Travelling to Scotland to see the Glasgow International Exhibition, Harriet becomes acquainted with Ned Gillespie's mother (who she saves from choking to death) and his wife. Invited to tea, she becomes intimate with his family and makes herself indispensable in any number of ways. But things are clearly not destined to run smoothly, as Harriet recollects in the first few pages what with all that silly white-slavery business and the trial, and what starts out as a seemingly light-hearted book gets progressively darker and darker in tone.

Without giving away the ending, I can say that at first the events described did seem a little far-fetched, but the more I think about them, the more plausible they seem. I think that this is likely to be a book that stays in my memory for a long time, ( )
1 vote SandDune | Jul 28, 2012 |
I could make this my shortest review ever, just by saying I loved this novel from start to finish, and if you haven't read it, you should. I don't want to tell you too much more about it, because its magic is in the storytelling.

But I'll give you a little teaser ...

Harriet Baxter is writing a memoir, specifically the story of her relationship with the artist Ned Gillespie and his family. Most of the novel is set in Glasgow from 1888-1890. Harriet met Ned quite by chance while visiting the first International Exhibition, in 1888. One thing led to another, and her relationships with Ned, his wife Annie, and their two young daughters grew. When tragedy struck the family, Harriet was right in the thick of it. But not necessarily in a good way.

Every so often the story is interrupted with a chapter narrated by Harriet in 1933, when she is 80 years old and living in London. These segments show us a different Harriet, perhaps the one she became after the tragedy, but more likely the Harriet she's been all her life.

Which made me wonder: what really happened in 1888? Then I would read on, looking for the "real Harriet" in her version of events, but still not completely sure who the "real Harriet" really was. Does that make sense? Of course not -- but that's the fun of reading Gillespie and I. There are so many twists, turns, and nuances that keep you guessing long after you've turned the last page. And I suspect there are as many interpretations of events as there are readers -- just get your hands on a copy and enjoy the magic. ( )
4 vote lauralkeet | Jul 4, 2012 |
An excellent book - it kept me guessing all the way through and even now that I have finished it I am still not sure who the guilty part was! A very clever set of characters who are brought to life in all their splendour. ( )
  curlycurrie | Jul 3, 2012 |
It's just about impossible to talk about "Gillespie and I" without ***SPOILERS*** so beware. Anyhow, I remember a cool summer night when I was 14 reading Daphne duMaurier's classic thriller "Rebecca." It was late at night, there was a pleasant breeze coming through the window, when suddenly, the room got deadly cold and the hair stood up on my arms, for I'd just gotten to the part where I realized that Mrs. Danvers wasn't just a sullen servant but a dangerous nut job. There may be a similar moment for you when you read "Gillespie and I," a psychological study of self-deception, and a damn scary one, too.

Read the rest at: http://thegrimreader.blogspot.com/2012/06/i-plumb-self-deception-of-twisted.html ( )
  nohrt4me2 | Jun 30, 2012 |
The narrator of the story, a single woman of 'independent' means, tells how she met Gillespie, a scottish painter, and his family and how they relationship changed their lives irreversibly. After some period of happiness, in which they get to know one another, there is an incident that will make all of them rethink their links and their allegiances. This is a psychological thriller with elements of historical fiction. A good read, absorbing and surprising. ( )
  alalba | Jun 27, 2012 |
Rating: √2

The Book Report: There isn't anything I can say that won't be a spoiler here. The book description from Amazon says:
“As she sits in her Bloomsbury home with her two pet birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter recounts the story of her friendship with Ned Gillespie—a talented artist whose life came to a tragic end before he ever achieved the fame and recognition that Harriet maintains he deserved.
In 1888, young Harriet arrives in Glasgow during the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter with Ned, she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in their lives. But when tragedy strikes, culminating in a notorious criminal trial, the certainty of Harriet’s new world rapidly spirals into suspicion and despair.”

I think even that is a bit more than enough.

My Review: If my rating this book with an irrational, unknowable, eternally expanding number doesn't tell you everything you need to know about how I feel about the book, here it is in one sentence:

Massive amounts of fun on more levels than amusing, fun-to-read books ordinarily have. ( )
2 vote richardderus | Jun 13, 2012 |
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