(First published as Book Review: The Observations by Jane Harris on Blogcritics.)
After reading and reviewing Jane Harris’ latest novel, Gillespie and I, I became interested in Harris’ fresh writing style that I also learned that she came to the literary limelight via a critically acclaimed debut novel, The Observations. I read the advanced praises and reviews to see what the fuss was about and became convinced to read the novel that made Jane Harris a familiar name in Victorian fiction.
The Observations, like Gillespie and I, also takes place in 19th Century Scotland, and it tells the story of a15-year-old Irish city girl going by the name of Bessy Buckley, who escaped her rather eccentric and dysfunctional family back in Glasgow to seek a new life in Edinburgh. She accepts a job as a maid in a lone house known as Castle Haivers despite the fact that she lacks basic housekeeping skills. Arabella Reid, the lady of Castle Haivers, simply hired Bessy to be the new maid because of her basic ability to read and write. At that time, Bessy realizes the rather strange behavior that the lady of the house displays, from being ecstatic to being angry from out of the blue, back to being ecstatic again. As part of Bessy’s tasks in her job, Arabella provides her rather odd tasks from sitting and standing up repeatedly to requiring her to record all of her daily tasks and personal thoughts with the empty journal and pen that was provided.
What the readers are seeing from Bessy’s journal entries aren’t just about her duties, but also her observations of her new surroundings, in particular the “missus,” Arabella, which I thought at first was the basis of the novel’s title. It turns out later that the mistress herself is writing about her own observations through a manuscript titled The Observations, writing her observations of her current and past servants before Bessy’s arrival, listing out characteristics and features of each servant in order to provide tips and analysis on what the ideal servant should be like. By the time she comes to her own section, she discovers that Arabella may have found out about her past at the peak where she and the teenage maiden were already forming a close bond with each other. With this, Bessy decides to take a little revenge by playing a childish prank involving a former maid who recently died and was also a highly-regarded servant by Arabella. Sadly, Bessy’s little prank backfires, causing her beloved missus to break in to inexplicable madness, and the past Bessy left behind was gradually catching up to her in the present.
When I started reading the first few pages of The Observations, I almost gave up and put the book down due to the atrocious grammar, punctuation, and spelling of the text. Of course, I then realized that the writing style was simply a part of Bessy’s character and has been writing these accounts on a journal. As the novel went further, Bessy’s writing became a lot more improved, not simply on the mechanics, but her account became richer in detail, more believable, and easier to read. In fairness, I was delighted by Bessy’s voice and the way she expressed her thoughts in the beginning, giving me the idea of the type of upbringing she came from. Though I’m not quite familiar with Victorian slang, I found Bessy to be hilarious and yet refreshing at the same time. As she continued on with her accounts, maybe I felt a little upset that once her writing improved, her signature voice waned a little bit. That somehow got me all confused again as I was getting used to Bessy’s storytelling style.
The story itself is a mix of dark humor, psychological mystery, ghost story, all-around gothic fiction. The themes remind me a lot of the old fiction that we’re familiar with, such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the more well-known gothic-themed works by Edgar Allan Poe, and even famed Japanese author Edogawa Rampo’s surrealistic-style mysteries. At first the summary of the book really gave me enthusiasm to read it all the way, but as I reached the middle of the book I felt rather disappointed. Nevertheless, I have grown to love Bessy Buckley. I found her more lovable and more sympathetic than Gillespie and I’s Harriet Baxter, not to mention the fact that her accounts were a lot more believable than Baxter’s. After all, young Bessy was writing on an empty journal just after the day is over (even if in the beginning it was obvious she was a liar), while the elderly Harriet was simply recalling memories she believed really happened (as a result of a “senior moment”-like mindset).
If you are a fan of Victorian gothic fiction, The Observations is a worthwhile read, even though it’s written by a contemporary writer. If you’re like me, who recently became a Jane Harris fan after reading Gillespie and I, you should also give her debut novel a try as well. It may not be as dark as Gillespie and I, but The Observations can also be a delightful, somewhat lighthearted summer read.