* Prices may differ from that shown
In 1888 Glasgow played host to an International Exhibition, which took place mostly inside the city's Kelvingrove Park. The exhibition celebrated science, art and industry and the money raised from this hugely successful event went towards the construction of the Kelvingrove Art Gallery.
The book Gillespie and I by Jane Harris uses the Exhibition as a backdrop but this book also flits between 1930s Bloomsbury.
Miss Harriet Baxter who is described on the cover of the book as an "art lover of independent means" travels from London to Glasgow for the International Exhibition following the death of her aunt. She befriends the mother of an artist by the name of Ned Gillespie and finds herself embraced by his extended family.
Almost fifty years later the spinster Harriet embarks on her memoir, which she claims will put straight, once and for all, the truth about her life and the fate of Gillespie.
The book flits between the memoir and her diary musings written in her dotage in London.
I had never heard of Jane Harris before but my sister bought this book when I was out shopping with her and she was incredibly enthusiastic about it once she had read it, so I obviously asked her to pass it on to me.
On the very first page of the book Harriet informs the reader that Ned Gillespie died at the very early age of 36, having destroyed as many of his canvases as he could get his hands on. Bearing this in mind one would expect the Ned we are introduced to to be a tortured man living an unhappy life however when he makes his first appearance in Harriet's memoir he is a kind and loving father of two daughters who is happily married to his wife Annie, an aspiring artist.
Gillespie and I runs to over 600 pages and normally I tend to baulk at books of such length due to the fact they need, almost without exception, further editing than the publisher seemed willing to agree to. However every page is necessary to this book and no word is wasted. This is the sort of book you need to read carefully as something which initially strikes you as minor and insignificant will later turn out to be very important indeed.
Jane Harris' skill as a writer is immense - the book is written entirely from Harriet's perspective and as such the language at times is stilted and very Victorian, which adds a level of authenticity to the narrative and also enables the reader to paint a rather vivid picture of Harriet herself. My initial view of her was coloured by the sympathy she evokes in the reader as she describes the loss of the aunt she has been caring for and a distant relationship with her stepfather.
As the book progresses however Harris has a knack for making you question your perceptions as the occasional word or turn of phrase makes you doubt something that was said before. Harriet, in writing the memoir in her dotage, is at a particularly lonely stage in her life but the theme of loneliness runs throughout the book, both in the sections where Harriet reminisces about her time in Glasgow and in the later diary sections which find her in 1930s Bloomsbury.
Harris does help the reader out somewhat as the book is definitely one of two halves, with the first half retelling what at first glance seems to be a fairly innocuous tale of Harriet's life. The second half however changes everything and without wishing to give anything away it will make you question how you viewed Harriet's version of events in the first half as another theme comes into play - that of manipulation.
Harriet's fortunate position as a moneyed member of the middle classes puts in her a position of power and this is well utilised, especially at first where she pays off a Glasgow artist who is about to publish a caricature which would have devastating consequences for the Gillespie family. Through Harriet's reminisces we are given the impression that Harriet's manipulations and meddling are a force for good even when, like most great manipulators, she rarely does the dirty work herself.
Gillespie and I is quite simply one of the best books I have ever read. It plays with readers' perspectives and expectations in an incredibly powerful way and I have to say the construction of this book is nothing short of brilliant. Harris' sharp intellect is evident not only in the book's construction but also in the huge amount of research she has undertaken for the book as she vividly describes the exhibition, Glasgow life in both the genteel and the poor areas of the city, and the people who populated the city then - especially those within the art circle, with people who existed being referred to in conjunction with the fictional characters. Having said all that, unlike so many novels with a historical setting you don't actually notice the painful research in the prose, which is wonderfully refreshing.
The book is one of those rare beasts - a literary masterpiece which is also a page turner and as such I can wholeheartedly recommend it.