As I mentioned in both of my blog posts from last weekend (you can read them here and here), the end of 2016 sort of got away from me. Although I spent the week before Christmas curled up at home or at the Starbucks across the street from my house, reading my current novel with ardor and interest, once Christmas hit, I was absorbed in family activities and spending time with SS, and I didn’t have much time to devote to my book. I’m back at work now, though, and while that is depressing in many ways, it means that I will be getting back to my daily lunch breaks spent with my current read in the Starbucks just steps away from my office building. (Needless to say, green tea is becoming a bit of an obsession for me!)
What is that current read? you may wonder. Well, if you follow along with me on Goodreads, you’ll know that after reading a fun but surprisingly poignant novel Christmas at Tiffany’s, I delved right into a darker and more complex dramatic narrative. I picked up the novel Gillespie and I by Jane Harris at the exact same time that I bought Christmas at Tiffany’s and I have been eager to read it ever since. The synopsis on the back cover of the book was what intrigued me: it is clear from just the short description that the novel will be a mysterious, psychological thriller set in the Victorian era. I had no idea just how interesting and engrossing the story would be, however, and I have been thoroughly taken in by the tale, and more specifically by the surprising narrator, Harriet Baxter. Harriet is a surprising character because I thought I had her all figured out, only to realise that she is perhaps a bit more sinister and less innocent than I expected.
Some context is required, I suppose, to explain what this blog post is going to be all about. In Gillespie and I, Harriet Baxter tells the story of her relationship with the Gillespie family, specifically with the artist Ned Gillespie, his wife Annie and their two daughters, Sibyl and Rose. For the first half of the novel, things are relatively pleasant and simple enough, as the reader hears about Harriet’s interactions with the family, told from her vantage point years later, as an old woman. Then, almost all of a sudden, little hints are dropped by Harriet that there is a greater purpose to the telling of her tale, and when Rose goes missing, it becomes clear that Harriet is recounting the story in order to get out her version of the events that transpired. Here, the plot becomes very interesting, as the reader begins to suspect, for reasons both stated and implied, that Harriet may’ve had a hand in the kidnapping of young Rose. When Harriet is arrested and put on trial, she continues to assert her innocence, but the reader is still nagged by the sense that something is just not right.
I am currently at the part in the novel when Harriet is on trial for Rose’s abduction. Although she is adamant that she was wrongfully accused, I don’t know what the actual conclusion or verdict is just yet, so I feel like I have put on my own detective hat and am trying to piece together what role Harriet might’ve had in the crime. For that reason, I am on high alert, and my reading of her narrative has become quite suspicious. She is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, and what is most fascinating about an otherwise mundane story is that there is this added layer of unease and uncertainty. As a result, I’ve decided to provide you with a few choice passages from the novel in today’s post. I will do a short close reading of each of these passages to portray to you exactly the sense of mystery and skepticism that surrounds Harriet as a narrator. I’ve missed doing close readings since my university days, and Gillespie and I is a perfect source of inspiration for this sort of literary investigation. So, here we go…
1) “Under normal circumstances, [Annie] might have left the girls in the care of her maid, but, unfortunately, the Gillespies had been obliged to dismiss Jessie, the previous week. It so happened that Annie’s Christmas gift from Ned — her silver bar-brooch, with the baroque pearl — had gone amissing. Annie wore that particular piece of jewellery only on special occasions, and its disappearance might not even have been noticed for a while had I not, one evening, requested another look at it.”
This passage is one that first elicited suspicion and curiosity in me. It seemed very strange that Harriet should have been the one to draw attention, albeit in an allegedly coincidental manner, to the fact that Annie’s brooch was missing. Considering that the fact that Jessie no longer works for the Gillespies means that Sibyl and Rose were left to attend to themselves at the time when Rose was kidnapped, it seems far too strange that Harriet would’ve played a part in this whole drama. Did Harriet ask after the brooch on purpose, knowing that Jessie would be blamed and fired, in order to set the whole crime in motion? Who knows…but there is at least evidence to suggest that this may be the case. It is also unsettling just how much Harriet has noted about Annie’s habits, particularly that she only wears the brooch on special occasions, and this gives the sense that Harriet is always hovering, watching and taking stock of the Gillespie family’s routines and activities. Her descriptions of the family are far too specific to be nonchalant.
2) “One can only imagine how wretched the old lady must have felt: the pangs of dread, churning her stomach; the actual physical ache, in the region of her heart; a tremble in the hands; the bitter taste at the back of her throat; and the ever-present sensation of nausea. These are the kind of symptoms, I suppose, that must have plagued her.”
How is Harriet able to describe guilt with so much detail? The very physical, tangible manifestation of this complicated emotion is something Harriet seems to know well. Although she is not placing herself in the role of the person who should feel guilty, in this instance, she describes the sensations as though she has felt them several times and in such a vivid manner. Is that not, then, suspicious, considering that she still feigns innocence? It is especially notable that Harriet uses the phrase “I suppose”, as if to divert the reader from her trail and reassert herself in an innocent light. Is this believable, though, or is the reader put even more on their guard by Harriet’s anxiety about being guilt-free?
3) “Back in early February, when I had first seen the list of witnesses for the Crown, there were one or two names that I had recognised as persons who might hold slight grudges against me.”
Okay, so what is going on here?! This woman who we have basically been encouraged to believe, as readers of her personal narrative, has a spotless character, now appears to have a hidden past of some kind. It is obviously possible that Harriet is entirely innocent in everything and people just wrongfully judge her, but isn’t it hard to believe that sort of thing, given the other hints and clues we’ve collected (for example, in the passages above)? I should say that these three points in the novel are mere samples of the strange, unsettling moments in this story…and now that I’m looking for them, I seem to find suspicious statements on every page. Perhaps I am overthinking things, but I feel that this novel is remarkable in that it forces the reader to question absolutely everything. This is not a comfortable reading experience, by any standards, but it certainly is a compelling one.
So far, I would highly recommend Gillespie and I to those readers who like a jarring and complicated psychological thriller. I’ll let you all know what I think as I reach the conclusion.
Girl with a Green Heart