The opening of Jane Harris's clever and entertaining second novel gives little indication of how dark it will become. Harriet Baxter, a cultured and refined woman approaching her 80th year, sits in her London flat in 1933 writing a memoir of events that happened in Glasgow in 1888. We are addressed directly as "Reader", as in a Victorian novel, such words as "sojourn" are used, and the writing is measured and stately. Yet a faint tinge of something wild and overwrought underlies.
This, we are told, will be a testament to her "dear friend and soul mate", the artist Ned Gillespie, who burned all his paintings and committed suicide. Now, for posterity, she will be the first to record the true story of this "forgotten genius".
The back-story forms the main body of the book, but we never lose touch with its present-day narrator, whose situation will be revealed eventually as the last act of a chlling drama. Its origins begin when the 35-year-old Harriet, freed from the bondage of caring for an elderly aunt, decamps to Scotland to savour her freedom and take in the first Glasgow International Exhibition. A thoroughly modern woman of independent means, she briskly saves the life of Ned's mother who has fallen down in the street and is choking on her false teeth. A close friendship with the entire family ensues.
Knowing as we do that Ned will destroy his work and himself, it is intriguing to be introduced not to a tortured genius but to a pleasant and stable sort of man with a loving wife and children, and a career which, while not stellar, is moderately successful. Soon, Harriet is practically part of the somewhat chaotic Gillespie household. Ned's wife Annie, also an artist, appreciates her help with the two unruly little girls, Sibyl and Rose. Harriet, having money, is able to support Ned's work.
"On the surface," she tells us in her even way, "the Gillespies did seem like a fairly stable family. However, ere long, I began to see beneath the façade." Sibyl, Ned's beloved and troublesome elder daughter, has begun to show signs of violent neurosis, drawing obscene pictures, smearing excrement on walls, planting sharp objects in her little sister's bed.
There is deep disturbing psychology in what follows, but things are not always what they seem. Harris plays with the reader's expectations and perspectives brilliantly, and to reveal too much more of the plot would be criminal. Suffice to say that our growing unease will be more than justified.
It is with the most subtle sleight-of-hand that Harris brings us to the gradual realisation that we are being manipulated, and that the whole story is one of manipulation. But of whom and by whom? Multi-layered, dotted with dry black humour and underpinned by a haunting sense of loneliness, this skilfully plotted psychological mystery leaves a few threads dangling, all of them leading back to an old woman living in London in 1933 with two greenfinches in a cage and a mysterious servant/companion called Sarah Whittle, of whom she is afraid. Equally filled with shifting perspectives, this parallel drama draws the book to its quietly nightmarish end.
Carol Birch's latest novel is 'Jamrach's Menagerie' (Canongate)Reuse content