In this winning debut set outside Victorian-era Edinburgh, Bessy Buckley should, perhaps, have given more pause to the fact that the mistress of Castle Haivers, Arabella Reid, hired her without a reference. But Bessy, eager to flee from the dark life her mother had forced upon her, isn't about to question her luck at so easily finding a position. That is, not until the missus begins making strange requests of her new maid. The young Irish girl has been hired, despite her inexperience, because she can read and write. Mrs. Reid gives her a notebook and implores her to record in it every detail of her daily life as a domestic servant. It is this journal that drives much of the plot of the novel.
As the story progresses, Bessy develops a deep affection for Mrs. Reid an adolescent sort of crush. When she discovers that these feelings are not mutual, and that the lady of the house held a previous maid, Nora, in higher esteem, Bessy grows jealous, and plots to get revenge on her disloyal employer. What ensues is the best sort of Gothic tale, replete with ghosts, locked rooms, intriguing questions, mysterious strangers and suspicious deaths. Author Jane Harris excels at creating fascinating, flawed characters. Bessy is unsure of her age her mother was vague about when she was born but her past makes her, in many ways, older than her 14 or 15 or 16 years. Her wry commentary on life at the rundown manor house is wonderfully comic. But Bessy is not simply mature and worldly beyond her years. She's simultaneously na•ve, and this duality makes her an all the more appealing narrator. Her voice is engaging, darkly humorous and always authentic. Harris skillfully recreates dialect and grammar appropriate for the period without making it difficult to read. The Observations has already created a stir in the U.K. Harris' British publisher, Faber, ran its largest first printing for a debut novel, and the book has received no shortage of critical acclaim. Original, bawdy and touching, Bessy's story is sure to find legions of fans on this side of the Atlantic, too. Tasha Alexander is the author of the historical suspense novel And Only to Deceive.