In Gillespie’s grip
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.