Three things

  • Book: Gillespie and I
  • Location: Glasgow
  • Author: Jane Harris



Three things: one, Jane Harris, where have you been all my life? two, imagine Shirley Jackson meets A.S. Byatt, with a little Sarah Waters and Zoe Heller thrown in, all set in Scotland, and you’ve got the feel of the story and three, I loved this book.

I’m sort of just going to flail and squee, and I’m not sure how helpful this review will be. Sorry!

In brief: this novel had everything I love in a great book — wonderful writing, real characters, and a compelling plot that surprised me — and I hated having to put it down. It’s a meaty chunkster that races along, but honestly, could have been twice the length and I would have cheerfully kept reading.

Set in the 1930s, the story is told by Harriet Baxter, an Englishwoman reflecting on her time in Glasgow in the late 1880s, during the International Expo. While there, she befriends Ned Gillespie and his family: his wife Annie, his mother Elspeth, his sister Mabel and brother Kenneth, and his daughters, Sibyl and Rose. Ned’s star is rising and Harriet is eager to help him achieve the fame he deserves. She becomes a family confidante of sorts and as a result, is with the family during a horrific tragedy that deeply impacts all of them.

The thing with the story is that Harriet doesn’t feel totally solid as a narrator. She’s very self-complimentary, filled with importance, and from the first page, I doubted her. As time went on, however, she grew on me, and I assumed she was just fussy, until–

But I’m going to stop there. I don’t want to give away anything.

This is a historical novel for those who hate historical fiction. There’s no royal scandal (but there’s a great mystery) or sweeping romance. Harris’ story is set squarely in Victorian Glasgow with the mores, behavior, and values, and nothing feels anachronistic or out-of-step. The crimes of the late 1880s — Jack the Ripper, the Arran murder — are in the background along with the wonder and beauty of the International Expo and the Scottish art scene.

I don’t mean to be coy about the plot but I don’t want to spoil the fun for anyone. This was such a delicious, gripping novel — get it. If you like suspicious old ladies and Victorian crimes, insidiously lovely writing that is blackly amusing and plot twists that sneak up on you, then this is your book.

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