The Observations – Jane Harris

Last post was my 300th!  Woot.

I’m not sure what to say about this book. I probably bought it (at a library sale, I believe) because the cover is gorgeous (despite being another Portrait of a Headless Girl), and it sounded worth a try. Which it was. I loved parts of it and hated others; in places it was exactly the sort of book my mind seems to actively fight against reading. One part of this was the dialect in which it was written: it is to be read as the warts-and-all, absence-of-apostrophes-and-all account of a semi-literate Irish teenager in 1880’s Scotland, giving the story of her sojourn in the home of her almost accidental employers. I get the concept and was willing to be on board with it, and you’d think if I could love the present-tense dialect of The Help I could get past anything, and yet it was like crumbs in the bedclothes. Contributing might have been that I loved Minnie and Skeeter and Aibie, and did not love Bessy Buckley.

Jane Harris does a lovely job of creating suspense, the feeling of imminent danger – and, in particular, the sort of danger you the reader can see coming between the lines of a first-person narration by an oblivious character. It’s a wonderful skill to have, that; I could well be wrong, but that seems like a tricky thing to bring about. Bessy is 15, and so oblivious of a great deal – which leads to more of those moments in which the older-and-hopefully-wiser reader has a different spin to put on events.

The story is a fairly simple one, but harrowing in its details. Bessy’s origins, while harsh and horrifying, are almost commonplace in her milieu, it seems; the Missus is not overly surprised to discover where she came from, where any decent human being finding out the same things about a fifteen-year-old girl today would be contacting authorities and state agencies (or their equivalent in Scotland). She has lost everything and set off, on foot, with very few possessions and wearing an inappropriate dress, with the vague idea of looking for work in a castle somewhere. She fetches up at Castle Haivers at the exact moment a girl is – hurriedly, and in some bit of a tizzy – leaving, and although it isn’t actually a castle she decides the name is a sign, along with the fact that a position seems to have just been vacated, and presents herself to the mistress. She is obviously not suited for the job of general maid – but the young lady of the house hires her anyway upon discovering that Bessy can read and write (in a manner of speaking), and we’re off.

If Bessy’s agenda and past is a bit different from the usual housemaid’s, so is her mistress’s unusual. Bessy is, by and large, looking for a temporary refuge and place to get her feet under her again; her mistress, Arabella, is more ambitious. She has frightened off not only Bessy’s immediate predecessor but several girls in the making of her Observations – being as she does not tell them why she is taking measurements of the distances between their features, and requiring them to perform strange exercises, and demanding that they keep a detailed journal of their day-to-day lives and thoughts. Bessy herself is kept from fleeing by a combination of discoveries she makes along the way, curiosity about the questions left unanswered – particularly about another, mysterious servant girl of the past, Nora – and a deep and confused devotion for Arabella.

I can’t deny that the book played me like a harpsichord. It made me laugh out loud, and nauseated me; it made me read faster in places to find out what happened next, and in other places made me dread turning the page. It was completely unpredictable; it was well put together – Bessy’s past literally catches up to her and leads directly to her future; it was well-written, in that it used a semi-literate girl’s voice to tell a coherent story; I just didn’t like it very much.

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