Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: That rare thing - literary fiction that is highly readable. Set mostly in Victorian Glasgow, telling one side of tragic events in the life of a young Scottish painter, you will have to decide how reliable the narrator is.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 608 Date: May 2011
Publisher: Faber and Faber
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780571238309

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Longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2012

The 'I' in the title of Jane Harris's Gillespie and I is Harriet Baxter. Now elderly and residing in London in 1933, she is finally telling her events of what happened in the early 1880s in Glasgow and her relationship with the Gillespie family. At the time, a spinster of independent means, she arrived in Glasgow to visit the International Exhibition and became a champion of and friend to a young Scottish painter, Ned Gillespie and his young family. We know from early on that tragedy struck the Gillespie family leading to Ned destroying his career, but Harriet wants to set the record straight with regard to her involvement in events. You may or may not believe her story.

Some of the literary prize boards will have you believe that readability and literary novels are mutually exclusive. Harris proves this is not necessarily the case. It's a highly readable story, full of wit and suspense that draws in the reader while unashamedly playing with our perceptions. It's a dark and compelling story and although the inferences are fairly strong, ultimately it is up to the reader to interpret events. It's beautifully written and paced.

Gillespie and I is also one of those books where to reveal anything about the plot is to ruin the experience. Suffice to say that it concludes with a court case whose outcome is uncertain until the final moments. But the great achievement of the book is in the character of the narrator. There's a touch of the Hyacinth Bouquets about her, and you will go through a range of emotions about her. Is she simply a slightly lonely but well meaning busy-body or is there something else afoot here. Certainly she seems unduly obsessed with the Gillespie family. But I will say no more than that.

Harris evokes the spirit of the times in her portrayal of Victorian Glasgow. Her cast are all wholly believable and the story evokes a range of emotions, from humour to sadness. Although fairly lengthy, the pages fly by as you get caught up in the story. Although it appears to be slow to get going, events are important to the outcome.

To tell anymore risks ruining the experience. If you like well written, psychologically interesting books that involve the reader having to make their own opinions on the story, then you will absolutely love this book. Highly recommended.

Our thanks to the kind people at Faber and Faber for inviting us to review this Orange Prize-nominated book.

This year's Orange Prize long list contains a slightly surprising plethora of Victoriana, including Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg and The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue.

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