Thursday, 23 June 2011

"The Observations," by Jane Harris

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I thought about writing this review in dialect. But, you will probably be relieved to hear, I decided against it.

"The Observations" is set in Scotland in 1863. The narrator is Bessy, a teenage girl who has left Ireland with her mother, Bridget, to live in Glasgow. Bridget is a woman of ill-repute, misguidedly attached to a feckless sometime lover called Joe Dimpsey, who in her vanity persists in trying to convince people that Bessy is her sister rather than her daughter. Bessy escapes the life with her mother - a life in which she is introduced to alcohol, and is paid by men to lose her miraculously regained virginity on a regular basis - and makes her way to Edinburgh to find more reputable employment. On her way she passes a unattractive red-faced girl dragging a box, before coming to a big house. It transpires that the red-faced girl was maid at this house, but has deserted her post and left the lady of the house in desperate need of a new servant. Bessy, not entirely honestly, inveigles her way into this situation.

When Bessy first meets the lady of the house, she takes her for a "gobaloon," as she is running around waving her hands in the air (she is chasing a pig that has escaped from its pen). Bessy is "betwattled' by the increasingly eccentric behaviour of the "missus" who puts her through a regular ritual of repeatedly sitting down and standing up, and she has to keep a journal that her mistress is allowed to read. Bessy is constantly aware that the missus compares her to a previous maid, Nora, a paragon of perfection, but it becomes clear that there is a mystery surrounding Nora which haunts her mistress.

Although it took me a few weeks to read this novel, as I kept getting distracted by other books, I found it very enjoyable - and it was Jane Harris' debut novel, which makes it even more impressive. Bessy's first person narrative has a very distinctive voice, peppered with dialect words, idiosyncratic phrasing and charmingly off-kilter grammar. Most of all, Bessy's irreverence and unique turn of phrase can be very funny. My personal favourite, which I also put on Twitter at the time, is the description of a woman as being "that small if you put a pigeon on her shoulder it could have picked a pea out her arse." The supporting characters also have well-defined, distinctive voices, from the oleaginous Reverend Pollack (the old Bollix, as Bessy calls him) to the amorous Hector fwho (sic) seems to talk with ha speech himpediment.

When I began writing this blog, I had the vague and rather pretentious idea that it might help me find my "voice." Reading this novel has made me think about how it is a totally different discipline and skill, once you have found your authorial voice, to then lose it again and submerge yourself in writing as a character. Jane Harris does this especially well, and makes me realise how much I could learn from her. I am aware that I am particularly bad at dialogue, so I should listen and pay attention to people more, and that all my characters tend to sound rather alike (i.e. like me). There is an inherent paradox here which I have yet to work through: that I think of writing as essentially a solitary, even solipsistic, pursuit, but that it requires a better understanding of people than I have yet acquired and so I should spend more time with other people. I think that maybe I should pay less attention to finding my voice and more on finding voices and, even more than that, I should get out more...

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