Monday, August 31, 2009

The Observations by Jane Harris - 416 pgs

Book CoverThe Observations is the story of Bessy Buckley, a young girl who is running from her horrible mother in Glasgow. Bessy's mother, having found a way to use the girl to provide an income, squanders the girl's money in drink and debauchery. When Bessy escapes from her mother, she begins a journey hoping to become a housemaid in a local mansion, but she is waylaid at a small estate where she is eventually employed by the lovely Arabella Reid. Working for Arabella is a strange undertaking for Bessy, for one minute Arabella is unusually loving and solicitous, and the next she is distant and penalizing. Although Bessy doesn't understand this behavior, she soon comes to regard Arabella, or "Missus," very highly and wishes only to please her and make her happy. One day, while snooping for clues about her Missus' odd behavior, Bessy finds a strange book locked in a desk drawer. She discovers that it is filled with descriptions of strange experiments that the woman is performing on the maids in her employ. Even more unsettling is the fact that Bessy herself and some rather unkind things about her are mentioned in the book. Hurt and angry at this unusual betrayal, Bessy decides to take revenge upon Arabella. Though Bessy does not intend it, things begin to get out of hand rather rapidly and soon Arabella is in serious danger. Though Bessy tries her best to repair the damage she has caused, Arabella continues a frightening downward spiral. Confused and scared, Bessy must use all her wits to save Arabella and herself from eventual destruction.

I found this book to be completely gripping. The plot was extremely well rendered and taut with psychological suspense and the author showed an amazing attention to detail. Causal references and plot points, when read carefully, began to shed a bright spotlight on situations in the house, and it was only at the conclusion of the book that I was able to examine the myriad of pieces and see the whole picture that had emerged.

There was also a good amount of satire and irony in this story, which I found delicious and perfectly at home within the context of the narrative. The perplexing behavior of Arabella seemed to push Bessy into heights of confusion and curiosity that were easy for me to share and understand, and as the clues to this mystery began to pile up, the darkness of the story intensified. There was no doubt that the author had an undeniable sense of atmosphere, and she painted her scenes with such a perfect mix of gloom, suspicion and dread, that it was easy to get caught up in from very early on.

The brilliant portrayal of the closeness and secretiveness of the Reid house was very symbolic of the relationship between the two women, and the scenery and the women worked and fed off each other in frightening and startling ways. Both the environment and the characters had a sense of coldness and remoteness about them, and I found the utter symmetry between the two to be a great touch.

I found Bessy to be a very intriguing character. At times she was totally repugnant and snide and at others very emotionally frail and accommodating, she was at once a walking contradiction. Hers was a very convincing voice that imbued the story with a good deal of credit and believability. It was interesting that as the book progressed, Bessy turned from confused and fawning servant into Arabella's merciless tormentor and finally, wracked with guilt, a most caring and attentive conspirator. Her shifts in these roles seemed very genuine and natural through the artistry of the narrative.

Though there were real villains in this book, they were not found where one expected, and were casually revealed, which I found to be a winning ploy. I spent most of the book wondering where the evil was to be discovered, only to realize that it had been somewhere unexpected all along. The point of this, I think, was to cloak both Arabella and Bessy in suspicion, to make them both seem villainous, when the truth was much more complex.

Unfortunately the book really fell apart at the ending. It was completely unexpected and seriously impacted my enjoyment of the story. The author opted for an undeserved happy ending which I felt was not remotely plausible. The conclusion of the book took something away from the story for me, and it almost made the entire journey seem unimportant. I found it to be such a shame not to be able to close this book with the satisfaction I had hoped for.

This was a riveting book in terms of character, plot and atmosphere that has not been widely publicized. Despite the contrived conclusion, I thought that there was a great dark energy about it and its twists and turns were exceptionally well delivered. If you are in the mood for a book that will sweep you away into its cluttered and close world and has a really unique ambiance, I would suggest this book to you. If you can deal with the substantially lumpy ending, I think it makes for an engulfing read.

16 comments:

Meghan said...

I have seen this book around the library a lot, so I don't think it's extraordinarily popular. Maybe they've all heard about the ending! I think I might give it a try anyway, it sounded so appealing until then. =)

bermudaonion said...

Bessy's mother sounds like a piece of work. I was all ready to add the book to my wish list until I read about the ending. Too bad.

The Tome Traveller said...

I hate it when a book lets you down at the end, especially when you have been engrossed up until then! Great review!

Marie said...

Sounds like a fun read. I love suspensey books with great twists and turns. :-)

Steph said...

I've never heard of this book before, but your review has really made me very interested in it. Sounds like it was such a gripping combination of writing and characterization. Have you read anything else by Harris? Also, what a beautiful cover!

Diane said...

This does sound good to me, despite what you said about the ending. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

Zibilee said...

Steph,
I believe this is the only book that Jane Harris has published. I took a look around after reading this because I was really enchanted with most of the book, but nothing else came up on an author search. I do think you would like it, it is quite an interesting book.

Sandra said...

Nice review. I really enjoyed this book and was not put off by the ending at all. I think people are missing out on some really good writing and story if they pass this one over. It was nice to see someone else's view of the story though.

Nymeth said...

This is set in the Victorian era, right? It sounds so much like my mind of book it's not even funny :P It's really too bad about the ending, but it sounds worth reading regardless!

Marg said...

It's been quite a while since I read this book, but I can't remember the ending impacting all that much on my enjoyment.

I did like it, especially with all the twists and turns and glorious gothickness!

Elizabeth said...

Man, I was ready to put this one on my library list, until you mentioned the ending. Not sure how I feel about that. I hate it when a great book has a bad ending.

Zibilee said...

Nymeth,
Yes, I do believe that this book is set in the Victorian era. Based on your tastes, I think this would be a wonderful pick for you, and even though I was let down by the ending, it doesn't take away the fact that this was pretty much an outstanding read for me. I would be interested in hearing what you think about it if you do get a chance to read it.

Melissa - Shhh I'm Reading said...

I've had this one on my shelf for over a year (maybe 2) and just haven't gotten to it. I think I am going to move it up, but I'm sorry to hear the ending didn't really work for you. I hate it when a book is really engrossing and then the ending ruins it...

Diane said...

This cover looks intriguing; glad u enjoyed the book; great review.

Petunia said...

I hate it when that happens. Bad endings always ruin my whole enjoyment in a story, whether book or movie.

Aarti said...

I've had this one on my shelf for quite a while, but haven't read it. I will pick it up, though, because though you didn't like the ending, you seem to really like a lot of other aspects of the book.

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