So are we all holding our breath for tonight's Orange Prize for Fiction announcement... and looking back I see that it was June 2007 when I squeezed in a last minute reprise of Orange Prize short listers a couple of days before the announcement. In amongst them my thoughts on The Observations by Jane Harris and I sense that I enjoyed but didn't rave, harboured a few disappointments that the author took control and didn't do what I had wanted her to do (tsk will I never learn) and generally plumped for Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun to win, which it duly did.
Rebecca mentioned in comments back then that The Observations reminded her of Fingersmith by Sarah Waters which is interesting, because I had thought whilst reading Gillespie and I, Jane Harris's latest novel, that it reminded me in some ways of Sarah Waters and The Little Stranger. None of which is to suggest that Jane Harris is derivative because the plots are entirely at odds, but more that her style here resembles that detailed, no-point-too-minor-to-mention, sustained and steady approach that would have the potential to induce reader fatigue in the wrong hands. I remember I did need a rest through The Little Stranger which ensured I emerged at the end feeling the book was something of a triumph over every sense I could bring to bear on a book, leaving me rife with uncertainty the more I considered it, and it still resonates with me even now.
In fact I have avoided any chance of fatigue by coming to Gillespie and I in instalments spanning several weeks, and at over 500 pages the book can cope with that and this may well explain why I seem to have been carrying this one up and down stairs for ever, but it's paid off...what a brilliant read.
Harriet Baxter is the elderly spinster narrator writing her account, from her Bloomsbury flat in 1933, of events as they unfolded at the 1888 Glasgow exhibition. Through a fortuitous encounter on Buchanan Street, Harriet eventually meets the young artist Ned Gillespie and his family, becoming a part of their lives until tragedy strikes and everyone's world quickly disintegrates. The fortuitous encounter involved Ned's mother and set of swallowed false teeth...not a word more and in fact this, like The Little Stranger is a hard book to say more about without giving too much away.
If I tell you that in the early chapters of the book I noted what an astute judge of character Harriet seemed to be and how wiley were her means of winning over those around her, you'll just have to appreciate that I am sort of proved right on that score several times over by the end of the book, whilst also realising that Harriet's insights into the sub-currents are entirely lacking. There's a sort of missing chip in her recollections, an inability to see how events impact on others, a self-centredness that remains almost childlike in its intensity, all of which starts to make you see just how clever and manipulative a novel can be of both character and reader.
Jane Harris's consummate skill which I recall so clearly from The Observations is that happy knack of grabbing a narrative voice and working it to its very limits to facilitate her plots. Bessie holds and charms in The Observations, Harriet also holds the reader here, but charms...well, not exactly...she is lonely and obsessed and gradually you realise to what extent.
Gillespie and I is a book with an afterlife, I have been thinking about it for days, little clues and discrepancies, an insidious unreliability creeping into the narrator's voice, until by the final pages pennies are dropping left-right-and-centre, and back I went looking for the clues I knew Jane Harris had planted but I had surely missed. Facts start to creep in but by-pass explanation from Harriet, cleverly glossed over the changes just 'are' and you realise...well you just realise.
So this may have missed the boat for this year's Orange prize, but it's never too early to start predicting for next year surely.