Every so often you read a book so outrageously strange and mind-bendingly, well, mind-bending, that you have to tell people about it–––if only so you have someone to puzzle the details over with. Gillespie and I, a 2012 historical novel by Jane Harris, fits this description to a ‘T’.
When I say Gillespie and I is strange, I don’t mean that in the post-modern sense. There are no incomprehensible, Pynchon style linguistic acrobatics to leave readers dazed and confused. On the contrary, Harris’ writing is consistently polished and easy to follow.
The story Harris presents, however, is far from clear-cut and direct. This is thanks to Harris’ remarkably well-crafted unreliable narrator, Harriet Baxter, from whose vantage point we see the novel unfold. Harriet is the motor that drives the entire story, as well as the crazy.
When I say crazy, please keep in mind that I don’t mean slightly unhinged. I mean bat-shit, holy crap, locomotion of the romantic variety, of a mode that gives Peter I of Portugal a run for his money (What up, History nerds?). It is the layers of Harriet’s insanity, gradually revealing themselves in tiny pieces, that is the true engine of the book, which is ostensibly a simple murder mystery.
Unraveling the depths of Harriet’s madness is as addictive as it is disturbing. Harris did an incredible job crafting this character, and the psychological portrait she paints is one of the most convincing character studies I’ve read in a long time. Even now, I’m still struggling to determine exactly how far the rabbit hole Harriet went, and trying to separate fact from her own strange vision of reality. I doubt I’ll ever be entirely successful in either endeavor.
All that gushing aside, if the novel does have a weakness it’s in the main subplot. Harris divided the book into two alternating sections, one written from Harriet’s POV in the 1880s and the other from her POV in the 1930s. The 1880s POV makes up the bulk of the story, and this ends up being for the best. While the 1930s section is promising at first, it ultimately sputters and doesn’t fulfill its promise. I understand why it was included in the book, but it felt far weaker to me and I think dragged the book down a bit overall. But at the end of the day, this isn’t a particularly big deal.
Bottom Line: Gillespie and I is a good book. Jane Harris is a talented writer. You should read it so I have someone to talk about the crazy with.