So begins Gillespie and I, the Orange Prize long-listed second novel by Jane Harris. Set, by turns, in 1880s Glasgow and 1930s London, the story is narrated by the elderly Harriet Baxter. Now almost in her 80s, Harriet has decided to record for posterity the story of her close, if short-lived, friendship with the talented Scottish artist, Ned Gillespie, and his family.
The narrator first encounters the Gillespies during the 1888 International Glasgow Exhibition, at a time when Ned‘s talents are slowly gaining recognition in the elitist Glaswegian art world. Indeed, after years of struggling to make a name for himself, it seems he is finally on the cusp of a professional break-through. And yet, in just a few short years, the once-loving and close-knit Gillespie family has been torn apart, Ned has taken his own life and his artistic legacy destroyed. What could have happened in the intervening years to cause such cataclysmic destruction? It is this question that Harriet sets about answering in this tragic tale of parental love and neglect, wasted devotion and obsession.
From the outset, Harris skilfully conjures an unsettling and insidious sense of foreboding – like a cat toying with her prey, she deftly weaves a plot so complex and unnerving that the reader is left discombobulated, perplexed, unbalanced and disturbed. Indeed, the only thing one is sure of is that nothing is as it seems in this rather brilliant novel. Reading this book is akin to the slightly panicked feeling one has when stumbling through a hall of mirrors – in each disorienting image we catch glimpses of our actual reflection, but thanks to certain faults, distortions or biases in the glass, the truth remains tantalizingly out of reach …
Masterfully written, this is a novel that will stay with you long after you turn the last page. Not to be missed!
'Gillespie and I' is published by Faber and Faber.
This year's Orange Prize short list will be announced on 17 April, and the winner will be unveiled 30 May. For more information, see http://www.orangeprize.co.uk