Gillespie and I by Jane Harris
Published: February 2012
Trade Paperback, 528 pages
As the book opens it is 1933 London, England and elderly Harriet Baxter begins to record the story of her friendship, 40 years earlier, with the Scottish artist Ned Gillespie.
This is historical fiction set against the backdrop of the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1888 and the art scene of the day. Thirty-six-year old Harriet Baxter arrives in Glasgow for the Exhibition. She soon meets and becomes fast friends with Ned Gillespie and his unusual family in a very intrusive way as she not only accompanies them on outings, but also does housework and laundry for them (what?) and is forever giving them gifts. Throughout the first few chapters of the book there are hints of things to come as Harriet says "if only we had known then what the future held in store" and "due to everything that happened" and "given what happened." There are a lot of references to Sybil, one of Ned's two young daughters. Her wild, uncontrollable, destructive actions led me to think that she is somehow going to figure into the mystery that is very slowly developing and that only really begins in chapter 11. I wasn't wrong. Sybil figures very largely in this tale. Suddenly her sister, Rose, is abducted, a ransom note arrives and mysteriously, Harriet is implicated and arrested. The household is turned into chaos. Sybil is put into an asylum. Life changes forever for the Gillespie family and Harriet.
Apart from 3-year-old Rose, none of the characters are very likeable. I didn't care for Harriet, despite her being quite funny and witty. I saw her as a manipulative, sad, hanger-on. Her unrequited love for married Ned she describes 40 years later as "eternal, aching sadness about Ned Gillespie"!! Her life has been about regret and unfulfilled dreams.
While there was no artist named Ned Gillespie, several other real-life Scottish artists are mentioned and the writing is done in such a way that the reader is transported to the late 1800's. The book is very atmospheric as the author describes the fog-shrouded streets of Glasgow, the narrow and smelly staircases in the old apartment buildings, the accents of the people, and the Victorian view of women.
The story alternates between events in 1888 and those of Harriet's life in 1933. In 1933 Harriet is living a quiet life in Bloomsbury tending her pet finches. However, she is preoccupied with Sarah, her companion and helper who lends a mysterious, brooding atmosphere to the story. I wondered, "Why introduce a new character at the end of the story?" Then I began to put the pieces together and I recognized her.
Themes such as family dynamics, loss, grief, deception and mystery are explored in the novel. Don't expect a fairytale ending.