In Gille­spie’s grip

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS -

Fa­mil­iar themes and ideas are given new and en­thralling twists.

IT is said that one of the pur­poses of art is to re­veal concealed truths. But there is also a fas­ci­na­tion with am­bi­gu­ity; the hu­man mind seems to like noth­ing bet­ter than a puz­zle. To cite pos­si­bly the most fa­mous ex­am­ple of this: It is doubt­ful whether Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa would have re­tained its fas­ci­na­tion over the cen­turies were it not for that am­bigu-am­bigu­ous smile. What is she smil­ing at and why? Re­move the smile and you would not have half the ques­tions that jump into your mind on see­ing the pic­ture, and it would not be half as mem­o­rable.

One of the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lents of this is the de­vice known as the “un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor”. The tech­nique is straight­for­ward, if hor­ri­bly dif­fi­cult to pull off. The novel is writ­ten in the first per­son and the events are seen through the eyes of the teller. But what if the teller of the tale lies, or imag­ines things, or sim­ply chooses to mis­lead? Where does that leave the reader? Read­ing the novel be­comes an in­ter­ac­tive guess­ing game of try­ing to work out where the truth lies.

Over the course of the open­ing sec­tion of John Fowles’ now clas­sic 1963 novel The Col­lec­tor (a clear source and fore­run­ner, in­ci­den­tally, of Emma Donoghue’s Room, which was a fi­nal­ist in last year’s Man Booker Prize), the nar­ra­tor calmly and coolly ex­plains how he plans to kid­nap a girl and hold her pris­oner. In the first few pages, as he only hints at what he plans, he sounds en­tirely or­di­nary, rea­son­able and just a lit­tle pa­thetic and so, as the reader, it is only grad­u­ally that you re­alise that he is in fact se­ri­ously dis­turbed. Then the re­al­i­sa­tion kicks in that he is ac­tu­ally de­ranged and his at­tempts at ra­tio­nal­i­sa­tion are just elab­o­rate ex­er­cises in de­ceit. And by then the reader is com­plicit in the de­cep­tion.

The worlds of art and the “un­re­li­able nar­ra­tor” come to­gether beau­ti­fully in Jane Har­ris’s sec­ond and lat­est novel, Gille­spie And I. The Gille­spie of the ti­tle is Ned, a Scot­tish painter, “artist, in­no­va­tor, and for­got­ten ge­nius”. The nar­ra­tor is Har­riet Bax­ter, who de­scribes Ned as her dear friend and soul mate.

“It would ap­pear that I am to be the first to write a book on Gille­spie. Who, if not me was dealt that hand?” she be­gins and there­after un­folds the tale of a sin­gle wo­man in Vic­to­rian Glas­gow who is smit­ten with the work of an artist and be­comes a close friend of his fam­ily with re­sults that no one could have fore­seen and that the reader is left to un­tan­gle.

Har­riet’s mem­oir of Ned is writ­ten some 45 years af­ter the events she de­scribes. Sit­ting in her flat in Lon­don, with two caged birds for com­pany, she re­con­structs the events of all those years ago and gazes at one of the few paint­ings by Ned that has sur­vived. At the same time, she re­counts the prob­lems that she is hav­ing with her live-in com­pan­ion. By far the big­gest sec­tions of the book deal with the Vic­to­rian past but her cur­rent prob­lems are also il­lu­mi­nat­ing – the words of Miss Bax­ter are sim­ply not to be trusted.

Har­riet’s ver­sion of the woes of Ned and his fam­ily, what­ever the ac­tual truth of the events she re­counts, raises all kind of is­sues and is par­tic­u­larly per­ti­nent in ask­ing ques­tions about the ways in which we think of the past, the ways in which we ide­alise our re­la­tion­ships (“soul mate” is not a ca­su­ally cho­sen phrase) and our seem­ingly un­lim­ited ca­pac­ity for self-de­cep­tion. Is there not, the reader is left won­der­ing, just a lit­tle of the Har­riet in all of us?

I am anx­ious not to give away too much of the plot of this be­guil­ing, in­trigu­ing, com­plex and beau­ti­fully writ­ten book. Suf­fice it to say that lovers of art, Ro­man­ti­cism and Vic­to­rian melo­drama are un­likely to be dis­ap­pointed.

Aside from Har­riet and Ned, there are some fine mi­nor char­ac­ters here, too, not the least of which are Ned’s wife An­nie and their el­der child, the tor­mented and waif-like Sy­bil. If these char­ac­ters are rooted in Vic­to­rian art and lit­er­a­ture, and through Har­riet’s eyes they quite clearly are, then it is only right that they should be, as these are at the heart of the book.

It is Jane Har­ris’s skill that she has re-wo­ven themes and ideas that are not en­tirely un­fa­mil­iar, and given them new and en­thralling twists. This is a novel steeped in its pe­riod with authen­tic de­tails and at­mos­phere – but it also con­tains some bit­ingly hu­mor­ous and far more “modern” mo­ments.

I can­not rec­om­mend Gille­spie And I highly enough – it is an ut­terly com­pelling and com­pletely en­gag­ing read, ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to put down.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.