A young Irish girl's compelling narrative

2008-02-01 00:00

THE Observations is Jane Harris's first novel and what a superb debut it is.

Set in Scotland in 1863, the tale is narrated by Bessy Buckley, a feisty young Irish girl with a past that she is desperate to escape. After fleeing Glasgow, Bessy, who lies about her housekeeping skills, is employed as an “in and out” maid at Castle Haivers, purely because she can read and write. But far from being the elegant country estate suggested by the name, the property is “a crumbling, drafty old wreck in a dismal landscape scarred by pits and with the stink of cows trapped under a leaden sky”.

Her mistress, the beautiful but mentally fragile Arabella Reid, has her own set of secrets and when she asks Bessy to undertake a series of bizarre tasks, the girl begins to realise that all may not be as it seems. Bessy's prying reveals that Arabella has not only discovered a great deal about her past as a child prostitute in Glasgow, but has also been using her to continue her research into the docile nature of the serving classes.

Bessy is the latest in a long line of domestic servants who Arabella has been observing. When Bessy learns that she compares less than favourably with a predecessor, the perfect Nora, this enrages her. In a fit of immature jealousy she plots her revenge, which has ghastly consequences that she could never have anticipated.

There's enough mystery and intrigue in The Observations to keep readers guessing, but it is Bessy's compelling narrative that makes this book a triumph. She is by turns bawdy and rollicking, then poignant and touching, and often very funny. However, it is Harris's skill as a writer and her ability to sustain Bessy's voice convincingly throughout which ensures that this is such a ripping good read.

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