The Observations

Written by Jane Harris
Review by Melinda Hammond

In Scotland in 1863, 15-year-old runaway Bessy Buckley finds work as a maid for the beautiful Arabella Reid and her penny-pinching husband at their isolated farmhouse. Arabella is compiling a book of ‘observations’ but Bessy soon discovers that she is not the first maid whose thoughts and physical details are recorded. She is torn between a fierce loyalty to her mistress and jealousy of an earlier maid of whom Arabella was inordinately fond.

This book begins at breathtaking speed, in part because Bessy, the narrator, is a fast-talking Irish girl. She writes as she talks, although, thankfully, her mistress teaches her some punctuation in chapter five so at least the reader can draw the occasional breath. Bessy is an indomitable character, and her voice is clearly in evidence from the first page. Details of her harsh upbringing emerge throughout the tale, but she meets every adversity with courage and humour. Be warned, Bessy’s life has been a hard one, and there is some unedifying detail. However, her character is wonderfully real, and she almost springs out of the page with her own sharp, pithy observations.

Ms. Harris has included all the elements of a Victorian pot-boiler: ghosts, madness, dark shadows and even darker deeds, but the narration has a frankness that would have a Victorian lady reaching for her smelling salts. The plot twists and turns right up to its surprising but satisfying ending.