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The Observations by Jane Harris

The Observations by Jane HarrisThere is no getting away from the fact that there is a whole stack of recent fiction set in the Victorian era and, because of this, Jane Harris’ 2006 novel The Observations, like others in this arena, has its work cut out to be a little different and capture the reader’s imagination.

I got hold of a Kindle copy after receiving a number of recommendations, so my expectations were already set high for the book. Also, since there are a number of the aforementioned stack of books that I have not yet got around to reading, I was looking forward to getting stuck into its nicely weighty 548 pages without having to worry too much about that “oh god, not another” feeling. So, did it live up to all those recommendations?

Read on for a full review…

-- The Observations by Jane Harris a Review by Des Greene --

Although I have categorised this review under Historical Fiction, I also felt inclined to place it under Humour and Mystery, since to me at least, these were equally important facets of this novel. In fact, if Historical Fiction is your main reading genre, then this book may actually disappoint in some ways. Don’t misunderstand me, Jane Harris does paint a vivid picture of the Victorian surroundings in Glasgow and rural Scotland, but the elements I most enjoyed were the characterisations and plot line, which can all too often play second fiddle to atmosphere and historical accuracy in books of this type.

The story centres around a young girl called Bessy who enters the fray en route to finding a domestic position in Edinburgh. By chance, her journey takes her past a sign for Castle Haivers, which she is unable to resist the temptation of investigating. On this short detour, she meets the rapidly fleeing figure of the country house’s existing maid, which means that she arrives in timely fashion to take on the role of replacement herself. But what of her past, and why is she so readily taken on by her new mistress, Arabella Reid? These and other questions form the mystery of the plot, and are gradually revealed with consummate skill by the writer.

So what is it that makes this story stand apart? What separates it from being just another sad tale of a Victorian chamber maid with a tragic past? The answer to that lies in the idiosyncratic wit and innate intelligence of young Bessy. Beautifully created, she has a charm and a way with words that lift the spirit and prevent you from even thinking of putting the book down. A number of the other characters are almost as worthy of note. Arabella herself is a strangely motivated and mysterious creature, and some of the supporting cast of servants, such as the hormonally over-active farm boy, Hector, and the belligerent milkmaids — dubbed the Curdle Sisters by Bessy — all contributing to the richness and colour. We do get the miserly and harsh master of the house, and the creepy clergyman of low morals, but even though you could perhaps accuse these of being stereotypes, they are, again, very skillfully crafted.

From start to finish, this is a truly delightful book. Despite the sometimes grim surroundings and the grindingly hard times which are endured by some of the characters, I never felt far from a smile whilst reading it. That is largely a testament to the endearing lead character that Jane Harris has created. It also leaves me looking forward with some relish to reading her latest novel Gillespie and I which was published in 2011.

Highly Recommended.

Already read The Observations? What did you think of it? Please post a comment below, Novel Suggestions is always keen to hear your opinions.

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