tisdag 23 april 2013

The Observations and getting historical fiction just right

I was really pleased when I started reading The Observations by Jane Harris - because it hooked me from the start, because it's the best book I've read this year (at least among those I hadn't read before), but also because I hoped it would prove blogworthy. I didn't count on the  fact that it's easier to fill a blog post with catty remarks about a book you didn't like than it is to praise a book you did like, and have no quarrel with. Consequently, this won't be one of my longer posts (as opposed to when I'm in the middle of one of my don't-mess-with-the-Victorians-rants).

The Observations is set in Victorian times, though it makes no great hue and cry about it. It's narrated by Bessy - not her real name, as it later turns out - an Irish girl who, by a fluke, is taken on as a maid-of-all-work in a run-down mansion in the Scottish countryside. Bessy is an engaging heroine and narrator, and she needs to be, because everyone else in the novel is pretty terrible. The lady of the house, with whom Bessy is very taken, is a cold-hearted piece of work. It's no big surprise when she disappoints her devoted maid, though the reader still gasps (I did, anyway) when the extent of her indifference and self-centeredness becomes clear. The lord of the manor is a miser and a bear - his brittle wife must carry every social event (which she dutifully does, though conjugal relations are out, apparently). They both shine, though, in comparison to Bessy's awful mother. You almost understand Bessy for giving the "missus" a second chance and once more offering her affection and loyalty after a brief but fateful period of disillusion and dislike. Anything and anyone must be better than the ghastly life waiting for her in Glasgow courtesy of her mum. Other members of the cast include a self-satisfied vicar and a fantastically unattractive young farm hand. It's fortunate that Bessy's a girl who knows how to keep her spirits up.

There's grittiness enough in The Observations, but the humour and resilience of the narrator/heroine stops it from depressing you, and you keep turning the pages. There's a mystery surrounding one of Bessy's predecessors, Nora Hughes, who died on the railway tracks. The suspense slowly builds up. What really happened? Is the "missus" to blame in any way for Nora's death, and is that why she seems so dementedly fond of the dead girl? And is it possible that Nora is haunting her mistress?

The solution of the mystery comes as something of an anticlimax, as is so often the case when the quality of the writing leads you to believe you're in for some marvellously clever twist which you'd never have thought of yourself. And a few things are left unexplained, perhaps intentionally. But otherwise, The Observations is a thoroughly satisfying read. It's the kind of historical novel Goldilocks would like. Not too hard, not too soft; not too grim, not too trashy; but readable, well-written and just right.

I have no great hopes that the gaggle of family sagas which I impulse-bought on Amazon yesterday will prove anything like as good. Not because they are formulaic - I have a great affection for many of the standard plots of historical pot-boilers - but because it's so difficult to find a formula that is actually well-executed. But more on the difficulty of finding the perfect feather-light read another time.