No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

#39: The Observations -- Jane Harris

Shortlisted for the Orange Prize, but that doesn't guarantee anything: I found it rather disappointing, a cross between the creative language (well, idiom and dialect) of True History of the Kelly Gang and the tortuous moral windings of The Crimson Petal and the White.

Bessy, the narrator, finds herself employed as a maid at Castle Haivers -- disappointingly, not a castle at all but a mansion house -- on the strength of her literacy: she read the sign and asked where the castle might be. The master of the house is currently absent, and the household is run by Mrs Arabella Reid, who has some strange ideas about maidservants and their place in life. Bessy is asked to keep a journal; to sit and stand, sit and stand, over and over; and, most perplexingly, 'What are you thinking of?' "What a thing to say," says Bessy. "In my entire life, no-body had ever asked me such a question."

Perhaps it's that lack of interest from the outside world that keeps Bessy close-mouthed even in her thoughts. Only gradually -- and via her discovery of Mrs Reid's Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Time, a series of psycho-social profiles of the maids who've worked for the Reids before -- does Bessy's past come to light. 'A Low Prostitute', as Mrs Reid has it and as we maybe should have guessed from the yellow silk dress she was wearing on the road, that attracted such attention from the vexingly-dialogued Hector. ("I fwhill be coming with you, hand you can be making me dinner. Hand hafterwards fwhee can be making a baby.")

Anyway, Bessy's not used to the role of maidservant, and when she finds that Mrs Reid's discovered her past, and that she's being unfavourably compared to Nora, a previous maid who died under mysterious circumstances ... well, any girl of spirit would want her revenge. SO Bessy sets out to construct a Victorian ghost story ...

Bessy's past, though she's tried to leave it behind her, creeps insidiously into her present. There are hints of inappropriate attraction, relapses ... and the reappearance of her mother, drawn by a ballad that Bessy composed and which has been published by a local gentleman under his own name. And there's Nora's ghost, not the glove-moving and message-leaving presence that Bessy engineers, but the shadow of a sweet and gentle girl who met an undeserved fate.

All comes out neatly in the end, with reversed roles, innocent crimes, unwed mothers, guilty consciences, disbelieved truths and lies with far-reaching effects. And the prose is very readable: Bessy has a colourful turn of phrase and a distinctive voice. It's hard to say why I didn't enjoy this book as much as I'd expected. Perhaps it's simply that I didn't like any of the characters. Perhaps that neat ending rings a little false, with some loose ends -- mostly the men, who Bessy has little time for and one can see her point -- left to fray.

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