An Old Lady, and Artist, and the art of manipulation

“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”  – Mark Twain

Jane Harris’ Gillespie and I seems a simple enough tale; a Victorian old spinster sits in her chair recounting old days gone by, intending to tell us about a young artist she met years earlier in her youth, named Ned Gillespie. Set in the rambling city of Glasgow, the newly-arrived narrator Harriet Baxter pursues her love for art, taking advantage of the fact that she is independent and wealthy, showing her to be a modern woman in her own class. In due course Harriet meets a young, struggling artist who impresses her with his promising talent and his cheerful disposition – Ned Gillespie – with a loving family and a promising career. After saving Ned’s mother from near death (almost swallowing her dentures), Harriet finds herself in the beginnings of a sweet friendship with a respectable family who welcome her into their folds.

Yet while praising Ned and his work, at the same time, from the very beginning, we are warned that Ned will eventually “burn almost all of his work” and he will never become successful, meeting a “tragic and premature death” before his talents are realised. Added to this dark foreshadowing is Harriet’s present-day situation, following her concerns about her live-in carer who seems to have questionable, almost sinister intentions towards Harriet – showing that the warm, close friendship with this new family will not last and she will soon be left alone.
Thus begins the twin narratives which travels and weaves through the novel, in which the present-day Harriet looks back in melancholy, adding a chilling sense of apprehension to her story, while at the same time worrying about her vulnerability and her strained relationship with her carer.

Back in the depths of her memories, Harriet reveals how she slowly carves a niche for herself in the Gillespie family – she becomes a confidante to Ned’s wife Annie, a useful nanny to the couple’s two children, and a empathising companion to Ned’s aches-and-groans-filled mother, eventually becoming a familiar fixture in the family’s home and proving herself invaluable, acting as a jack-of-all-trades within the house, servant, cleaner and nanny.

Soon, however, beneath all of this are unspoken tensions and anxieties, and it is not long before the cracks begin to show and strange things begin to happen within the family.  There is a growing unease as the children’s behaviour begins to become erratic, while Ned begins to feel isolated from his family and there are increasing arguments with his wife, leaving a tense atmosphere and a sense of the unknown. Yet amidst all of this remains Harriet, steadfast, reliable and warm, in her attempts to keep the family together.

It would be difficult to reveal more of the novel without spoiling it, but suffice to say that the bliss and contentedness the family feel does not last for long, as they are soon struck by a mysterious tragedy. It is here that Harris shows her true genius of writing, showing subtly and craftily that all is not what it seems; leaving the story pulling and tugging at the reader’s mind, questioning what is truth and what is hidden. There is always a feeling of being manipulated, but by who is always quietly undermined by Harriet’s steadfast and positive character, and her loneliness in her present-day narration. There are plenty of metaphors too, but just what they point to also are subject to query – her two green finches, for example, which she lives with in her apartment in present-day London appears to symbolise true love, and perhaps even her love for Ned Gillespie – yet what does it mean when one of them die?

This is a book which is truly recommended, progressively pacing from a pleasant picture of family life and an elderly lady’s memoirs into something more harrowing, and it is definitely something which leaves the reader enthralled in the quest to find truth, right to it’s muted, terrifying end – yet ultimately leaving us to make up our own minds about who to trust and what to believe.

Jane Harris, Gillespie and I (Faber and Faber: London 2012) pp. 608, £7.99

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