As she sits in her Bloomsbury home, with her two birds for company, elderly Harriet Baxter sets out to relate the story of her acquaintance, nearly four decades previously, with Ned Gillespie, a talented artist who never achieved the fame she maintains he deserved.
Back in 1888, the young, art-loving, Harriet arrives in Glasgow at the time of the International Exhibition. After a chance encounter she befriends the Gillespie family and soon becomes a fixture in all of their lives. But when tragedy strikes - leading to a notorious criminal trial - the promise and certainties of this world all too rapidly disorientate into mystery and deception.
Featuring a memorable cast of characters, infused with atmosphere and period detail, and shot through with wicked humour, Gillespie and I is a tour de force from one of the emerging names of British fiction.
Harris's haunting second novel finds Harriet Baxter, a single 30-something adrift after the death of her aunt, visiting the famous Glasgow International Exhibition in 1888. There she meets the Gillespies: Ned, a talented painter; his wife, Annie; their young children, Sybil and Rose; and Ned's mother, Elspeth. In quick order Harriet becomes obsessively close to them, sitting for paintings, assisting Ned in his career, befriending Annie, and even helping take care of Sybil, whose increasingly disturbing behavior leads to the angelic Rose going missing while in her care. Months later, Harriet is unexpectedly arrested for Rose's murder. This is all presented through Harriet's memoirs, written as an old woman in 1930s London and focused on the curious behavior of her maid, who may hold a mystifying connection to the Gillespie family. Harris (The Observations) succeeds with nuanced characters, including the mysterious Harriet, but takes too long to arrive at Harriet's trial, the crux of the plot. Once there, however, the reader will be so thoroughly entrenched in the carefully arranged details and the courtroom's gripping drama that there will be no turning back.