The Observations by Jane Harris

Watching me, watching you - aha!
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The Independent Culture

Scotland, 1863. The narrator, Bessy Buckley, a young Irish immigrant, has abruptly left her dubious position as a "housekeeper" in Glasgow and is desperately seeking a new situation before her murky past catches up with her. An encounter with a woman chasing an escaped pig and Bessy's chance remark that she can read and write leads her to be engaged instantly as an "in and out girl" to the sprawling Castle Haivers estate. Her new employer is the beautiful Arabella Reid, whose alternating extreme displays of affection and strict discipline soon prove addictive to Bessy. Moreover, Arabella has some unusual requests for the new maid: that she obey all instructions, however odd, and that she keep an intimate account of her everyday experiences and thoughts - her "observations" - in a diary for Arabella to read at her leisure. This is to be kept secret from Arabella's cold, remote husband, who has parliamentary ambitions.

Yet Bessy is no pushover. Enamoured (one poignantly childish scene has her carving her mistress's name on a raw potato) as she is, she is also mischievous, irreverent, boisterous and used to looking out for herself. After a shaky start, she confidently embellishes her diary entries to Arabella's satisfaction. Bored at being cooped up in the large, secluded house, piqued at Arabella's apparent ambivalence, Bessy begins to eavesdrop and to snoop. She discovers that Arabella has been keeping her own book of observations, a thorough physical and psychological examination of each servant who has passed through her hands. and that she is guiltily haunted by the memory of Nora, a model of obedience, who came to a sticky end on the nearby railway line. Seized by an irrational jealousy of Arabella's favourite, Bessy decides to use this knowledge to concoct an elaborate ghost story, in the process unleashing an unstoppable and enormously entertaining spiral of events. For this is Harris's gift: structures are set up to be subverted, and for all the dark substance of the book, including child prostitution, rape, madness, alcoholism and emotional neglect, her skill lies in constructing a playful conceit. Bessy is her co-conspirator, surely one of the most striking characters in recent fiction: cynical, disruptive, tender and very, very funny.

Her language is a mixture of dialect, coarseness and erudition: "fartcatcher" and "duplicitous" are used almost in the same sentence, and with no sense of incongruity. Caricatures abound, from the sour milkmaids ("the Curdle Twins") to Hector, the farmboy with wandering hands, and po-faced Reverend Pollock, renamed "Reverend Bollix" by our heroine. Castle Haivers is no Italianate Castle of Otranto, but a "crumbling, draughty old wreck in a dismal landscape scarred by pits and with the stink of cows trapped under a leaden sky". As the title implies, this is a book about watching and being watched, writing and being written about. Windows, keyholes, and looking glasses all play their part, as do actual books (Arabella gives Bessy a copy of Bleak House to read on her first night at Castle Haivers; she hopes it isn't an omen); assumed and mistaken identities, diaries, letters, newspaper notices, ballad sheets and religious tracts. The supreme controller of this sumptuous narrative is Bessy herself, arch manipulator to the end, as she - and Harris - effortlessly show how compelling a rattling good story can be.