Thursday, April 5, 2012

Staff Pick - Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Gillespie and I (M) by Jane Harris is a story about loneliness, obsessive adoration, and one family's rapid destruction. Upon completion you are left with as many questions and doubts as at the beginning. This is a novel that cries out for a second reading, as I'm sure the clues are all there obscured by a veil of respectability.

Harriet Baxter is the somewhat unreliable and not always likable narrator of this tale. One family and one terrible tragedy became the focus of her otherwise uneventful (or was it?) life. Harriet, an elderly woman living with a carer in a Bloomsbury apartment, tells the story of Scottish artist Ned Gillespie, whom she describes as her soul mate and one with whom she had a powerful connection. We learn very early that Ned did not achieve the fame she felt he was worthy of because of a terrible personal loss that led to his destroying his paintings and his own life.

Young Harriet Baxter is a well-heeled English spinster. She is in the unusual position of being financially independent and unmarried. Her mother died when she was a child and she has only a tenuous connection with her stepfather. Solitary Harriet met Ned Gillespie at an exhibition and was immediately drawn to one of his paintings and he gentlemanly demeanor. Chance seemed to draw her back to him at the Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888. At the Exhibition, Harriet came upon an unconscious woman, and coming to her aid, found that she was choking on her false teeth. Harriet rescued her from this ignoble end and was pleased to learn that the woman was Ned Gillespie's mother and this brought her once again into his company.

Gillespie comes across as a genial young man who is beginning to have modest success in his profession. His home life is a bit chaotic with a wife and two young daughters, living in a small house with a mother and siblings in close proximity. Harriet describes a harried young artist who is doing his best to juggle his work amidst the demands that this busy family places on him. Eldest daughter Sybil becomes the focus of the chaos as she exhibits behaviour that is distressing, destructive and disturbing. Harriet becomes a friend of the family and makes herself valuable by providing them with income, presents and practical help. Finally, as we knew from the start, something terrible occurs and youngest daughter Rose goes missing. After weeks of frantic and fruitless searching, Harriet is astounded to find herself arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder.

Gillespie and I has two story lines - one in "present day" 1933 where we see an increasingly paranoid, confused, and perhaps alcoholic Harriet leading what she portrays to be a genteel and academic life recounting those dark days in Glasgow - and the other describes the trial and its aftermath. Can we trust Harriet? For a time you believe that you can . Although you feel sorry for her loneliness, it's hard to like her as she so obviously covets Ned and is jealous of his relationships. How far would she go? Is she a monster, or is she merely a lonely woman ingratiating herself with someone else's family? Gillespie and I is a haunting story that is so suspenseful you are propelled through its 500 pages so rapidly you are in danger of missing Harriet's "by the way" comments that make chilling sense at the end.

If you enjoyed Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (M) you might also enjoy Gillespie and I. "Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and Nancy Montgomery, his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders. Dr. Simon Jordan, an up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness, is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories? Is Grace a female fiend? A bloodthirsty femme fatale? Or is she the victim of circumstances?" publisher

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