Scotland, 1863. In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley-a wide-eyed and feisty young Irish girl-takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella-the "missus." Bessy lacks the necessary scullery skills for her new position, but as she finds out, it is her ability to read and write that makes her such a desirable property. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her mundane chores and most intimate thoughts. And it seems that the missus has a few secrets of her own, including her near- obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances.
Giving in to her curiosity, Bessy makes an infuriating discovery and, out of jealousy, concocts a childish prank that backfires and threatens to jeopardize all that she has come to hold dear. Yet even when caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex, and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella. But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and raise the stakes even further, Bessy begins to realize that she has not quite landed on her feet.
The Observations is a brilliantly original, endlessly intriguing story of one woman's journey from a difficult past into an even more disturbing present, narrated by one of the most vividly imagined heroines in recent fiction. This powerful story of secrets and suspicions, hidden histories and mysterious disappearances is at once compelling and heart-warming, showing the redemptive power of loyalty and friendship. A hugely assured and darkly funny debut, The Observations is certain to establish Jane Harris as a significant new literary talent.
Do you all have those books that you have either borrowed from the library or picked up off the bookshelf quite a few times but you just haven't got to read before you picked up something else, or before you had to return the book to the library! This book is one of those books for me! And I very nearly had to return it unread to the library again, but I managed to read it and, I have to say, I am glad that I did because it was quite original and entertaining.
The main character is Bessie, a young girl who is running away from her unsavoury past. In order to try to escape some unwelcome attention she turns in to the road that leads to Castle Haivers (although there is no castle!) and her life changes. She is employed as a maid by Arabella Reid, even though it is clear to Arabella that Bessie has no experience as a maid, despite what she says! Thus begins a strange journey. Bessie becomes so enamoured of her mistress, willing to go to any lengths to replace Nora (one of Arabella's former maids) in her affections. As Bessie begins to realise that she may never replace Nora, Bessie begins a bit of tomfoolery, not realising the dramatic effects that her actions will have on her beloved mistress. As Arabella's mental state deteriorates and her husband and doctor begins a series of incredibly bizarre treatments, Bessie tries to find out the truth of what happened to Nora, not realising that the truth about her own former life is getting closer and closer to being revealed.
Bessie is incredibly flawed, no polite little Victorian miss. She is mouthy and impertinent, saucy and yet her affection for Arabella is heartfelt and sincere. She is also trying to drag herself out of her previous situation any way she can, a situation that she was basically put into by her mother.
The great thing about this book is that it twists and turns and doesn't end up going in the directions that you think it will go. Every time that I thought that I knew what was going to happen next, something completely different happened.
If you like your books atmospheric and gothicky then this one could be for you.
Originally posted at Historical Tapestry October 2007