Gillespie and I, By Jane Harris

Confessions of a Victorian groupie

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The Independent Culture

A curious, creepy novel set in 19th-century Glasgow, with flash-forwards to the 1930s, Gillespie and I is not easy to review because the most striking thing about it is the hidden story that emerges as one reads, and that can't be revealed without spoiling things for the reader.

Let's just say that the story is told by Harriet Baxter, who befriends the up-and-coming Scottish artist Ned Gillespie in the 1880s, and in her old age decides to set the record straight about their relationship and the tragedies that befell him and his family.

It's a tour de force of ventriloquism: the voice is perfect – cultivated, critical, arch, genteel and a touch spiteful – and one believes wholly in Harriet Baxter, both as a young artistic groupie and as an elderly spinster of diminished means. The evocation of period and setting is as convincing as a genuine Victorian novel, and there is a physicality about the writing which causes certain passages to inscribe themselves upon the cerebral cortex. It also includes one of the longest, tensest and best courtroom scenes I can recall in a novel.

Full of incidents and conversations whose significance only becomes clear long after you've read them, Gillespie and I is a masterpiece of irony and grotesquerie, told with the straightest of faces. One for the long winter evenings: its 605 pages will fly by. But it lingers in the memory after you've finished it.

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