Just finished reading Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris, which I bought about a week ago, started reading and could not put down. I read it late into the night, woke up looking forward to resuming it and found myself sneaking a sly chapter in the middle of the day when I was meant to be doing other things. It's a big, beautifully written and cleverly constructed read. The research has clearly been meticulous. Historical research, as I know all too well from personal experience, can be a trap for the unwary. The research itself can become so enchanting that one thing leads to another, and you find it hard to make yourself stop and write the novel. But Jane Harris displays an admirable and vivid facility for transporting her readers back in time.
The story is narrated by Harriet Baxter, now an old woman, living in Bloomsbury in 1933, with her pet birds, and her servant, Sarah, for company. She remembers her visit to Glasgow, for the International Exhibition of 1888. Street plans are helpfully provided for readers who, like me, are fascinated by the details of the setting. Young, art-loving, unmarried and of independent means, Harriet meets Elspeth Gillespie, mother of gifted but fairly impoverished artist, Ned Gillespie, (this is the time when the Glasgow Boys were beginning to be in vogue) and recounts how she saved Elspeth's life when the woman was choking on her own false teeth - a typically bizarre event, wrily recounted in Harriet's precise and entertaining tones.
Invited to the Gillespie home in the West End of Glasgow, Harriet realises that she has already met Ned at an art exhibition in London. She gradually becomes a close friend of the family: Ned, his talented wife Annie, and their two young children, Sybil and Rose. When unexpected tragedy strikes this loving family, it will affect Harriet herself in unanticipated ways, and change the course of all their lives.
To detail more of the plot would, I think, be to spoil it for the reader. But I'll say this at least, to intrigue you. When you have finished this book, the story will work away like yeast inside your head. And I can practically guarantee that the first thing you will want to do, is to read it all over again. Which is quite an achievement on the part of the writer. Gillespie and I is not just beautifully written and researched, but absorbing, believable, and perhaps more than anything else, quietly terrifying: a haunting, mysterious and deeply disturbing story. It's the best book I have read this year and perhaps for a number of years before that!
Gillespie and I is published by Faber and Faber, 504 pages, price £14.99