Let me say straightaway what an impressive book this is. Gillespie and I, the second novel by Jane Harris - whose The Observations was widely acclaimed - is a bravura work, its pace finely controlled, its plot like a rope played out, as taut or slack as dramatic effect requires, its setting so well re-created that the reader could find their way around the Glasgow of the 1880s, should the need arise. But beyond all that, what really makes the book is the central character, Harriet Baxter, and as it's a first person narrative, it's Harriet's voice which literally and metaphorically carries the story.
I can't say much about what happens in the book without giving away more than I should, but it begins in 1888 when the International Exhibition of Science, Art and Industry staged in Kelvingrove Park was a major draw for visitors to the city. Up from London has come the art-loving Miss Baxter, a spinster in her mid-thirties, who takes rooms near the park, intending to spend a few months enjoying the attractions. A chance encounter brings her into contact with the family of Ned Gillespie, a young artist whose work she admires and whom she had met once briefly before, and as time goes on so her friendship with the Gillespies means she's a frequent guest in their house and quite a fixture in their lives. But events then take a disturbing turn and a major crisis befalls the family, one in which their new friend, concerned observer as she is, becomes closely involved.
The story is told by Harriet in the form of a memoir she is writing, back in London, almost fifty years on, and what makes it so interesting are the subtle shifts in her account. Is she a reliable narrator? Is she what she seems? Are there ulterior motives behind this apparently generous, caring and helpful woman, and does her charm conceal a manipulative streak? It's to Jane Harris's credit that the reader has moments of doubt as to the veracity of the tale throughout, and notes the quick but telling references to events of understated but unmistakeable significance - she's teasing us so beautifully, playing us as an angler does a fish. I could go on at length here, but suffice to say that there's real skill involved, and not a word out of place in what is, in sum, an exercise in perception, objectivity, and the borderline between interest and obsession.
As to the when and where, Ned Gillespie is a fictitious member of the loose group of artists known as The Glasgow Boys (Lavery, Guthrie and MacGregor get a brief look-in); most of the action happens in the city's West End, and the meticulous research has paid off in terms of settings and detail, and there's a brilliantly done (and accurately rendered) set-piece trial scene which takes place here in Edinburgh. That all amounts to a very strong and pre-possessing framework on which to hang an ingenious and quite gripping tale, but there's so much more to it than a good plot in a suitable setting with drama and wry humour combined - it's the psychological acuity which is so clever. I loved it!