The Observations

November 2012’s book group choice was The Observations by Jane Harris, a book I’ve been meaning to read since its publication in 2007. I kept coming across it in my local library but never managed to get to it. So I was pretty excited, especially since Harris’ second book, Gillespie and I, had been garnering lots of attention and praise in the book world.

Set in 1836 near Snatter, a village close to Glasgow, The Observations is a reflection on the early life of Bessy, one maid. Her previous master, a Mr. Levy, who had suddenly perished, left her homeless and penniless and very reluctant to return to her exploitative mother Bridget. And Bessy finds herself in a new position as an in and out girl in a creaky old mansion inhabited by an English lady who seems rather sweet, if not eccentric. And soon they develop a strange relationship, one of mistress and servant, scientist and experiment. For Arabella Reid, Bessy’s mistress, is keen to further her understanding of the servant (i.e. lower) class and has been studying her maids for a while. Bessy, who is literate, agrees to keep a diary for Arabella to read. But she soon learns that her new mistress has also been writing her thoughts in a secret book titled The Observations. Slowly, we learn about Bessy’s past and that of Arabella and the strange and unfortunate death of Nora, Bessy’s predecessor. As Arabella succumbs to visions of Nora, Bessy finds herself in an increasingly surreal situation where she has to try and reconcile all the secrets and lies both for herself and her mistress and to protect her new home.

Bessy’s voice is extremely strong and I wasn’t sure how I would fare with the novel. However, before I knew it, I was immersed in Bessy’s life story, her vibrant, no-nonsense and very positive nature captivating me. It’s a very accomplished debut and deserves all the praise it has received. However, I don’t know why, but I found the book a little slow and couldn’t wait for it to be over. I don’t know whether my expectations were far out, but I was expecting a big secret, reveal or even a ghost. Arabella’s story made sense, as did Nora’s, but it didn’t wow me much. I loved the gothickness of the tale, Harris’ writing style was interesting and well delivered, Bridget was terrifying and yet. Maybe Bessy’s personality was too bouncy and was out of phase with the overall gothic situation she found herself in. Bessy is, after all, one for brightly coloured silk and satin whereas Arabella is all dark and shadows.

But The Observations was universally loved in my book group with Kim giving it a 10. I gave it a much lower mark but it probably had a lot to do with the mood I was in. I am, however, looking forward to reading Harris’ next book, Gillespie and I, which had most of the book world raving with praise.