I've never been the quickest of readers but this vibrantly written novel, weighing in at 500 plus pages, so engrossed me I devoured it in just 4 days. It seemed so innocent at first, beguiling me with its engagingly described cast of characters.
In 1933 Miss Harriet Baxter sits in her Bloomsbury apartment, tending to her caged finches and writing her memoir of the times she spent with Ned Gillespie over 4 decades earlier, an up and coming young artist, her dear friend, she dubs him, her soul mate even.
At once we are informed that her friend Gillespie and his young family are ill-fated, that the tale will end in tragedy, a tragedy so deep that the young man will destroy his life's work and take his own life. The first half of the book follows Harriet, then a thirty something spinster, as she relocates from London to Glasgow after the death of her Aunt, a woman who had brought her up after the death of her mother. In 1888 Glasgow hosts the first International Exhibition and Harriet decides to rent rooms nearby to take in the spectacle. A chance encounter, amusingly recounted through Harriet's memoir, brings her into the orbit of the Gillespie family, her timely extraction of half a set of dentures from the back of an old lady's throat, who turns out to be Ned's mother, is the first step on the road to what lies ahead. Over several months Harriet becomes almost part of the household, finding opportunity after opportunity to ingratiate herself among them.
Just as we start to get comfortable with the happy set up, Harriet reminds us that there are dark times ahead - a trial even, though what crime is looming and who is to stand accused is left unsaid. Although leisurely, the narrative at no stage bored me. Despite its length I was always either entertained or intrigued. I was fascinated by the complicated family dynamic, the Victorian detail, the depiction of Glasgow and its characters both fictional and historical, and of course, Harriet's colourful and often acerbic observations. It's fairly apparent that Harriet at times does resort to being manipulative, she's prone to bias and there's something quite off-kilter in some of her references to her stepfather and Ned, her so-called soul mate, but I still found myself liking her. The second half of the novel deals with the break down of the Gillespie family and the trial. I hold my hands up and admit I was completely wrong footed by how things progressed. I'll not say any more as I'd be risking straying into spoiler space. Suffice it to say that the conclusion doesn't disappoint.
I would heartily recommend this book as a great summer read, perfect for that sunny afternoon in the garden, though I must warn you that you may not notice the sun on your face, or the pleasant bird song in the trees, or the bees in the Buddleia - not if you sink as deep into Harriet Baxter's world as I did.
This review was from an Advance Reading Copy.
Black Arches on our kitchen window -
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