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Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Updated: Jan 8

Out of all the words I churned through while considering how to describe this novel the one that rose to the top was ‘sinister’.

“In the Spring of 1888, it so happened that I moved from London to Glasgow.” An innocent enough beginning. But reader beware, and be aware, because you are going to have to be both throughout this book and you might as well start from the beginning. Why does anyone move from London to Glasgow in 1888, and use a small inheritance to travel to a place where, “the reflected glow of countless furnaces turned the clouds sulphurous yellow”? And that throw-away phrase, “it so happened”? All through this book you’re going to wonder if anything ‘so happened.’

A few chapters in the story starts to feel like gothic horror involving possessed children, along the lines of The Turn of the Screw. It is probably not accidental that Gillespie and I is set in two time periods: the last decade of the nineteenth century, when Henry James’ ghost story was first published, and the 1930s, when critical analysis of The Turn of The Screw started to suggest that the hauntings were the product of the narrator’s imagination. Stephen King described The Turn of the Screw as one of only two great supernatural works of horror in a century. I’ve never read any Stephen King, and I usually avoid horror, but I am tempted to add Gillespie and I to this tiny list.

By now, I’ve probably given the impression that this is a ghost story, which it isn’t. But it is a story that makes the words haunting, possession and malice spring to mind. A ghost story without ghosts, if you like. Harris, like, I’m told, Stephen King, pushes the potential of the ambiguous first-person narrator to its limit. In other words, you are never certain you know what’s really going on.

Further in and the story moves from gothic horror to family tragedy and your sympathy for the Gillespie family’s bewilderment and suffering will almost overwhelm you. Harris does not let up and the seemingly normal 1930’s story, where the narrator is writing her memoir, also takes a sinister turn.

The surface above these ominous undercurrents is one of acute observation. The narrator takes you on an amusing ride and Harris juggles the mixture of late nineteenth century language and mid-twentieth century commentary, without stranding the reader in either era.

Here is the narrator writing about the narrator in the 1800s, “This was an exhausting conversation, hostile and full of dead ends. I had forgotten that such was the only type of discussions in which my stepfather engaged; his interlocutors were always his adversaries; indeed he did not feel that he was engaged in a real dialogue unless one participant ended by triumphing over the other. I will admit to feeling frustrated. We had not seen each other for many years; it seemed hard to believe that we were embroiled in such a pointless, combative exchange about nothing more meaningful than gadgets.”

But all the while you’re being pulled in by this intelligent and self-analytical character the author is also forcing you to take a step back and ask yourself that disturbing question, ‘what is really going on?’

Stories, I believe, are conceived when the writer puts them into words but are not born until someone reads them. Harris manages the space in which the story comes to life, that space between reader and writer, with enormous skill. Every reader will come away with a slightly different opinion about that first-person narrator. Every reader will interpret the ‘facts’ of the story differently. And you might even end up asking yourself if there are any facts in any story – it’s all fiction anyway.

Facts aside, the emotions stirred up by the horror genre are here, with none of the elements of the ridiculous. Although, at the beginning, there is one ridiculous scene. What can I say? Harris exploits the tropes. She has you on a string.

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