By Jane Harris
Faber & Faber, 320 pages, $25
The first story Jane Harris ever wrote was about her ex-boyfriend, a transvestite. She was broke and living in Portugal. It was 1990. Now, 16 years later, Harris, 44, lives in London and has published her first novel, The Observations, a bewitching story of gothic proportions set in Victorian Scotland. This ebullient book tells the tale of Bessy Buckley, a feisty young Irish housekeeper embroiled in a complex web of secrets, lies, scandals and ghosts unfolding against the backdrop of an industrializing Scotland with its pastoral fields bludgeoned into coal pits.
The Observations has arrived with much fanfare in Britain. It is Faber & Faber's lead spring debut fiction title, with what is said to be the house's largest initial print run of a first novel. Harris is being compared to Sarah Waters. Befitting the gothic nature of The Observations, the book almost perished in the author's attic. Harris had abandoned it after about 100 pages. Three years ago, she rescued the writing, sending it off to publishers. Story has it that rights sold around the world based on those few pages.
The Observations is bawdy and rollicking. In 1863, the plucky Bessy, our 15-year-old heroine, is on the run from a seamy (and tragic) life in Glasgow. She happens upon a housekeeping job in rural Scotland at Castle Haivers, working for the beautiful Arabella Reid. But nothing is as it seems. Castle Haivers is a crumbling manor house. Arabella is no typical lady of the manor and Bessy no innocent serving girl. Bessy has a complicated and scandalous past she hopes to keep hidden just as Arabella hides the mysterious death of her much beloved previous maid, Nora.
Arabella is oddly delighted to find Bessy literate and asks her to keep a journal. Bessy quickly develops a deep loyalty and affection for her "missus" despite her bafflement over the strange tasks Arabella assigns her. After discovering the true reason Arabella wants her to keep a journal, a jealous Bessy plays a trick on Arabella but it spins out of control. The plot is full of marvellous twists, pitches and rolls -- revealing any more would diminish the page-turning pleasure.
With a nod to Dickens, Jane Eyre, Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and even to Irish Big House novels such as Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, Harris, with her vivid characters and ingenious structure, has written a unique book. Told as a journal within a journal within a memoir, the novel is a combination of suspense, ghost tale and coming-of-age story. It is an account of watching and remembering, perception and deception and of longing and friendship.
Harris has created an unforgettable and complex character in Bessy, who leaps off the page with vivacity and hilarity. Bessy's shocking past is subtly revealed, adding a dimension of quiet sadness to the high-spirited character. Bessy is also possessed of a childlike spontaneity that is both a blessing and a curse. Her voice sings through the novel, speaking in a rhythmic Scots-Irish dialect: "I sat in the kitchen playing with the cat until the missus rang for me to clear away the tea things and get Old Bollix his stinky coat. But could I get shot of the old scut, devil the bit of it. Even once he was in the blasted coat he stood there in the hall with his hat on smiling fondly, going 'Aah-haah!' And asking nosy questions. Right enough he was different to your usual You Pee, most of them was miserable as Sin, but he did not fool me for a second. I give him the old 'Yes sir no sir 3 bags full sir,' and at last, after what seemed like an Eternity I got him out of the door and closed it firmly behind him."
Comedic and dramatic, The Observations comes to an unexpected ending with every thread pulled tightly together. It's clear that Harris is every bit as tenacious as her Bessy, so there is little chance her next novel, also set in Victorian Scotland, will languish in the garret. I'll be waiting with bated breath.
Christy Ann Conlin, author of Heave, is finishing a novel about a contemporary maid in a dilapidated Nova Scotia manor house.