on June 8, 2006
The voice of Bessy Buckley is what makes "The Observations." Tart, scrappy, plain-spoken, and a liar, she is a teenaged Irish girl stumbling across Scotland on her way to Edinburgh and whatever that city may hold. She turns in the direction of a sign marked `Castle Haivers' to get rid of an annoying Scottish boy, and is taken on there by the Castle's strange mistress. She is asked to do a number of unusual tasks by beautiful Arabella Reid, on whom she develops rather a crush. Bessy's ability to read is both her blessing and her curse when she discovers Arabella's journal recording the obedience of servants, one in which Bessy does not receive the highest marks. Never one to take a slight in stride, Bessy uses Arabella's weaknesses against her, resulting in a tragedy that may fulfill Bessy's greatest hope.
First-novelist Jane Harris has created a terrific character is Bessy, a girl whose tender-hearted nature is revealed in the way she guards her protector's last act--pooping a tiny turd--in a silk bag. It would take a girl from the bowels of Glasgow to consider this a homage, but that's the kind of thing that makes Bessy so appealing. Less successful are Arabella and the whole supernatural element of the story. Victorian ghost stories spiced with 19th century hypocrisy/perversion are just not as interesting as Bessy Buckley scrubbing floors or snooping in drawers.
Harris's ability to create character and spin a good story is beyond doubt. She doesn't need to rely on ghostly gimmicks to make her story work, and I hope that she goes for a straight historical novel next time. She writes a great sense of place, time and character, and I look forward to her next concoction.
An Irish lass in 1860's Scotland, Bessy Buckley is down on her luck, her former "employer" having left this mortal coil. With nothing to her name but the dress on her back, Bessy takes to the road, hoping to find work somewhere along the way. By happenstance, while coming to the aid of a local man's wife, Arabella Reid, Bessy lies her way into employment, but her duplicity is exposed when she fails to milk a cow, one of her new duties; Reid calls Bessy back and takes her gladly into her home when she realizes that the girl can read and write. One of Bessy's new duties will entail keeping a detailed journal, although she must be taught how to properly assemble her thoughts into a coherent form on the pages. Happy enough in her new role, Bessy has clean clothes and a room for sleeping, although she must endure extremely odd orders from her new employer.
While snooping in Arabella's room, Bessy discovers the woman is writing a book, Observations on the Habits and Nature of the Domestic Class in My Home; some of the remarks written about Bessy are none too kind. Miffed, her feelings hurt, Bessy nurtures a grudge that will fester the longer she works for Mrs. Reid. Over time, Bessy learns there have been other girls, one of whom, Nora, disappeared and was later found dead near the railroad tracks, causing much grief to Arabella. Growing attached to Arabella in spite of her critical comments, Bessy's jealousy is pricked by the very mention of Nora and the effect the girls name has on Mrs. Reid. Bessy craves a small revenge. Unfortunately, her petty machinations result in the unraveling of the Reid household, uncovering the troubling events surrounding Nora's demise.
Grimly atmospheric and steeped in mystery, Arabella's journals call to Bessy, who rather ingeniously seeks to learn the nature of the Reid's marriage, the cause of Nora's untimely disappearance and Arabella's floundering mental condition, although the answers are a bit anticlimactic. Her quirky humor is a constant, a running commentary on the habits of the better class, their pretensions and distractions. In a strange brew of social convention, the despair of a lonely, half-mad woman and the restrictions of a patriarchal society, Bessy is bent on her own survival, yet blind-sided by unexpected affection for Arabella, a Byzantine maze of hopes denied and fortunes run amok. Luan Gaines/ 2006.
on July 5, 2006
Fifteen-year-old Bessy Buckley "had reason to leave Glasgow," but that reason she'll tell you later on. First, she wants to start at the beginning of her story. In her journey along the Great Road toward Edinburgh --- which she made on foot, for this is 1863 and the automobile is a ways off yet --- she encounters a lady chasing a pig, which she thinks looks like tremendous fun. She stops to see if she can help. This woman turns out to be the mistress of Castle Haivers, a grand manor that is a little the worse for wear by the time Bessy gets there, but the offer of work as a maid is a far cry better than what she left in Glasgow.
A strange but electric kind of relationship builds between the maid and the lady of the house. Even a bold and bawdy young Irish girl fleeing a questionable past needs someone to love and care for. Bessy forms a fierce attraction for her mistress, with an almost desperate desire to please. Unfortunately, lady Arabella exhibits some unique behavior, eccentric at best. Right off, Bessy notes "...there was something queer about all this...you could have sensed it a mile off downwind with your eyes blindfolded your nose blocked your ears stopped up and a cork in your hole."
Well, Bessy can read and write, to Arabella's delight, and the lady takes it upon herself to teach her more proper ways. She asks her, as she has all her previous maids, to keep a journal of her daily doings. Bessy writes freestyle, without the bother of commas and periods, which she deems about as understandable as goat droppings. As Arabella gets her to pay more attention, more punctuation finds its way into Bessy's story. If currying favor with missus means learning how to use those funny dots and squiggles, so be it.
Bessy is about as honest a person as you'll meet, taking responsibility and all its repercussions without a flinch, whether she deserves to or not. She doesn't care one bit what others think of her --- except, that is, for missus. As she goes about her duties, Bessy (not exactly nosy but let's call her unusually curious) makes some disturbing observations of her own about her mistress and Castle Haivers. Lady Arabella's odd requests leave Bessy flummoxed, to say the very least, a state she does not handle well, and it prompts her to probe deeper to make sense of what's going on. What she finds out is heartbreaking.
Bessy's is the freshest voice to come along in a long time. Totally unpretentious, plainspoken, blunt and highly observant, Bessy tells it like it is, and a bit like it isn't, if the truth be told. It is sometimes hard to tell whether she is making up words and phrases or whether they are Irish colloquialisms, but they are all hilarious. Case in point: Pig's pizzle, one of my favorites. And she has many, many more.
THE OBSERVATIONS will make you laugh and it will make you cry, and it will be remembered for a long time to come. Told by the highly entertaining narrator, Bessy Buckley, it is utterly unputdownable.
--- Reviewed by Kate Ayers
This is another of those great novels published this year that I just couldn't put down, right up there with The Ghost Orchid and the Girl in the Green Glass Mirror. The book is like driving one of those Connecticut back roads at night, every few yards a new twist or turn, but you follow it, not knowing where it's leading you because you want to find out. In 1860s Scotland, an Irish girl named Bessy Buckley comes to Castle Haivers to work as the new maid. We soon find out that isn't her real name, the castle is not a castle at all, and the inhabitants are a whole lot stranger than they first appear. "Bessy" herself is running away from an awful situation. Because she can read, the lady of the house, Arabella Reid, gives her Dickens novels with apt titles for this book, like Bleak House and Great Expectations. When Bessy starts telling her own childhood story, it is one that would have made Mr. Dickens shudder. More and more questions are raised. What happened to the former maid, Nora? Is she dead or alive? Is she haunting the house? Is Arabella delusional or is she seeing actual people that are a threat to the household? There is surprise after surprise right up to the end. The story is told by Bessy, a likeable character with sincerely good intentions who had a bad early life through no fault of her own. Bessy's sense of humor and irreverent remarks about the other characters will leave you laughing and firmly on her side. I couldn't recommend this book more highly for well-researched entertainment and originality of writing.
on July 28, 2011
1863 and Irish teenager Bessy Buckley, an intelligent, streetwise yet tender hearted girl, leaves Glasgow where she has had an abusive past, forced into prostitution at ten years old by her mother, to make a better a life for herself and comes into the employ of Arabella Reid in a beautiful mansion named Castle Haivers near Edinburgh. she develops an infatuation with her glamorous but unstable mistress and is all to eager to please Arabella, who performs strange experiments on her. But this changes when she discovers a journal of her mistress entitled 'Observations' on the 'habits of the domestic class' in which Arabella says some uncomplimentary things about young Bessy and also reveals her infatuation for a previous maid named Nora who died in mysterious circumstances. Hurt and incensed Bessy decides to play a childish prank to get revenge, but this sets in motion a series of weird and dangerous occurrences and many twists and turns. Humorous, witty, at times sad and at others chilling, but always impossible to put down and always a magnificent read-this novel has it all. I fell in love with Bessy and it was her wonderful, witty, tart, pert, adorable, and warm hearted character, with a wonderful turn of phrase -such gems as 'pigs pizzle' 'I could't give a fleas fart' and 'Jesus Murphy' This makes sure the book was never dull. As you come to know Bessy you will want to follow her adventure to the end. A cast of Dickensian characters which Bessy interacts with makes this one of the best debut novels on the 2000s. This is a wonderful read and cannot be recommended enough.
on April 1, 2012
I'm not sure what to say about this book. I probably bought it (at a library sale, I believe) because the hardcover jacket is gorgeous (despite being another Portrait of a Headless Girl), and it sounded worth a try. Which it was. I loved parts of it and hated others; in places it was exactly the sort of book my mind seems to actively fight against reading. One part of this was the dialect in which it was written: it is to be read as the warts-and-all, absence-of-apostrophes-and-all account of a semi-literate Irish teenager in 1880's Scotland, giving the story of her sojourn in the home of her almost accidental employers. I get the concept and was willing to be on board with it, and yet it was like crumbs in the bedclothes.
Jane Harris does a lovely job of creating suspense, the feeling of imminent danger - and, in particular, the sort of danger you the reader can see coming between the lines of a first-person narration by an oblivious character. It's a wonderful skill to have, that; I could well be wrong, but that seems like a tricky thing to bring about. Bessy is 15, and so oblivious of a great deal - which leads to more of those moments in which the older-and-hopefully-wiser reader has a different spin to put on events.
If Bessy's agenda and past is a bit different from the usual housemaid's, so is her mistress's unusual. Bessy is, by and large, looking for a temporary refuge and place to get her feet under her again; her mistress, Arabella, is more ambitious. She has frightened off not only Bessy's immediate predecessor but several girls in the making of her Observations - being as she does not tell them why she is taking measurements of the distances between their features, and requiring them to perform strange exercises, and demanding that they keep a detailed journal of their day-to-day lives and thoughts. Bessy herself is kept from fleeing by a combination of discoveries she makes along the way, curiosity about the questions left unanswered - particularly about another, mysterious servant girl of the past, Nora - and a deep and confused devotion for Arabella.
I can't deny that the book played me like a harpsichord. It made me laugh out loud, and nauseated me; it made me read faster in places to find out what happened next, and in other places made me dread turning the page. It was completely unpredictable; it was well put together - Bessy's past literally catches up to her and leads directly to her future; it was well-written, in that it used a semi-literate girl's voice to tell a coherent story; I just didn't like it very much.
on May 18, 2010
It's a funny thing about reading someone's diary - it feels a little naughty but it's rarely worth the effort. "The Observations," fortunately, is the exception to that rule.
A smart and suspenseful story told in a unique voice, "The Observations" is sometimes spooky and sometimes serious, with funny moments that reach right off the page to slap you unexpectedly in the face. The narrator, an Irish servant of Scottish masters in the 19th Century, tells both her own story and that of those she serves in parallel, as she reveals pieces of her own past and how they tie into her subsequent actions.
I love a good ghost story, and there are enough of those elements here to hold my interest alone, including a few parts that gave me the chills. It's hard not to give too much away here - the line between what's known and what's unknown can be a fine one, but Jane Harris rides it like an expert here.
What pushes this one past the standard ghost story is Bessy's narrative voice, a sarcastic yet heartfelt thread that runs from beginning to end. Her introduction is abrupt and without preamble - she tells her story in her own time but she doesn't waste time. It sets the tone for the rest of the book. I enjoyed some parts of the book simply for the way Bessy seemed to speak to me from the pages, making me laugh or making me gasp or making me feel with her. Her voice is genuine and simply put, she kept me reading.
I enjoyed "The Observations" more than I expected I would - it's a slow burn of a story told cleverly, with a steady hand and an unforgettable narrative voice. Can't ask for much more than that!
on January 6, 2007
What a wonderful book! Having just slogged through a few books which were named "best of 2006," I found this funny historical novel to be especially refreshing and delightful. A good book does not have to be ponderous and depressing, despite what book critics often seem to think.
I finished _The Observations_ in just two days because both the narrator and her strange story were so thoroughly compelling. I highly recommend this book and am looking forward to future books by this author.
on May 13, 2015
Set in the late 1800’s in Scotland, this semi gothic tale is told from the perspective of Bessy Buckley, a young woman looking to improve her fortunes. She lucks into a position as an all purpose maid at Castle Hevers, which in spite of its grand name is nothing more than a somewhat rundown manor, by lying about her past experience in service. She is employed by Arabella, who is desperate for a replacement to her former maid for more than the usual reasons. The master of the house is frequently away on business, and Bessy provides company. She finds Arabella’s tasks to be odd at times, but grows quite fond of her. She follows Arabella’s directions to write down her feelings and daily activities in a journal. Everything changes when she discovers a journal that Arabella has been keeping called “The Observations”. In it, Arabella details how she is trying to determine the characteristics of the perfect servant, and has been performing experiments not only on Bessy but on the girls that came before her. One of the former maids died in tragic circumstances. Bessy realizes that she did not fool Arabella with her purported background in service, and that Arabella’s feelings towards her are not what she had thought. Bessy’s anger gives rise to a need for retaliation and she creates a clever scheme to get back at Arabella. Her scheme goes very wrong and causes a chain of events that reveals a sordid and dark side to the past events at Castle Hevers and brings out Bessy’s own tragic past. This book seemed more disjointed than her other book, “Gillespie and I” and lacked some of the focus and creepiness.
on September 6, 2012
This is Bessy's story, in her own words, of the strange experience she had working as a servant for Arabella and her husband. Although Bessy is a servant, that was not always so; the reader is gradually informed about the scandalous, awful truth of her past as Bessy sees fit.
Ultimately Bessy discovers that her mistress has a secret: Arabella is conducting experiments on the servants she employs, and is even writing her "observations" in hopes of getting them published. She also learns that there is a mystery behind the death of a previous servant. After feeling betrayed by Arabella's secrets and lies, Bessy takes action. Though she comes to regret what she has done as she watches Arabella descend into madness.
What makes this novel amazing is the format in which it is written. The frame narrative is a document that Bessy is writing for a group of gentlemen who are to use it only for research purposes. Embedded in this are excerpts from Arabella's observations as well as excerpts from journals kept by servants (this is something Arabella requests of her maids in order to get a fuller understanding for her observations). Another complexity is the quality of the writing. As the reader progresses through Bessy's narrative they will notice that the grammar and vocabulary in her writing gradually increases. The writing styles in the novel denote class, and the progress of Bessy's literacy is indicative of an improving station in life.
Innovative in style, and a captivating plot. The Observations does not disappoint!