Thursday, June 29, 2006

Historical Hysteria

The Observations, by Jane Harris, Viking Adult, 2006

Laugh-out-loud funny isn’t what first comes to mind when you think of historical novels. Jane Harris’s debut The Observations ought to change a few opinions, however. Bessy Buckley, the novel’s feisty narrator, has written an account of her life from the time she became a maid at Castle Haivers at the age of fifteen and all through the events that led up to her working in an asylum at the book’s close. An irreverent, sometimes melodramatic girl, Bessy tells a tale that is part Northanger Abbey and part vulgar Irish drinking song.

Bessy begins working at the castle under the direction of her very peculiar mistress, the beautiful lady Arabella Reid who takes her on despite Bessy’s clear lack of skills as a domestic. It seems the young girl’s rare ability to read and write is what has caught her mistress’ attention and soon Bessy finds herself tasked with writing down her every waking thought, including what she thinks of the strange behavior of her mistress.

Possessed of a prickly intelligence and an insatiable curiosity, Bessy uncovers a few mysteries at Haivers, including her mistress’ amateur scientific treatise on the caste of servant girls, what tragedy befell Bessy’s predecessor, and who the woman haunting the edge of the castle grounds really is.

While the nineteenth century plot is a mixed gothic meets coming of age story, Harris has stirred in some of the straightforwardness from the Victorian Era’s seamier writings. Bessy doesn’t flinch from calling a thing by its less polite term and her street-bred manners lead to some comedy. “I says, ‘Honest to Gob, missus, I’m not a liar.’ And would have spat to swear my word except we was inside, so I just did three small pretend spits over my shoulder. Your woman looked appalled, I don’t know why she was bothered, the place was a shambles.”

What is so captivating about The Observations, though, isn’t its plot or its curious twistings, but rather Bessy’s assured voice. “The sour phiz on the pair of them,” she writes of two other castle servants, “it is an unexplained miracle how the milk did not turn on a daily basis.” Tart commentary abounds throughout, whether Bessy is noting the master’s miserly ways, the local reverend’s superior manner and roaming hands, or the young Scottish servant’s lisping lechery. “His eyes sealed over as he regarded me, his lips lengthened. I realised he was attempting a smile. It was like watching bacon curl.” The writing crackles with period slang and a loose grammar that often slips into amusing side jokes.

While the novel is written after the fashion of the times, its rather conventional story arc might seem a trifle too neat for modern sensibilities. No loose end remains untied, nothing is left to chance, and some characters’ fates fit too snugly and conveniently. This is, of course, rather like criticizing Dickens’ works for their sentimentality, and I suspect is rather done deliberately by the author in homage to novels of that age.

What’s most impressive is that Harris never lets her narrator out of her control as may happen with some first time novelists. While Bessy’s manuscript may contain elements of her unruly upbringing, Harris slowly tightens respectability around her like a leash, the sentence style becoming more conventional as it progresses. This is a subtlety that may go unremarked, but Harris allows her character to grow not only as a personality but also as an author, and by the book’s end there is both an unforced restraint and Bessy’s still bubbling wit — only now the two have matured together.

[This review was prepared for possible publication in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but owing to space and contractual considerations did not run there. I hope you enjoy it anyway, even if it is a more formal style than typically seen 'round these parts.]

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