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01/31/2012 03:36 pm ET | Updated Apr 01, 2012

The Woman Behind the Curtain: Gillespie and I by Jane Harris

Even for readers who think they've seen everything, Gillespie and I by Jane Harris is almost certain to be surprising. The novel's setting is Victorian-era Scotland, and its narrator, 35-year-old Harriet Baxter, is a nosy spinster with an interest in art -- Scottish artist Ned Gillespie in particular. Harriet chronicles her friendship with the Gillespie family in a narrative that at first seems like the prim, tedious maunderings suited to a Victorian maiden aunt. By the end, however, Harriet's genteel prattling has constructed a nightmare that rivals anything by Stephen King.

Harriet's memoir alternates between the past and present, from the art world of 1880s Glasgow to her current circumstances living in Bloomsbury in 1933. In Glasgow, Harriet recalls a critical time for the Gillespie household, when tragedy is poised to strike and destroy the lives of Ned, his wife and their children. Meanwhile, back in the present, Harriet realizes that the tragedy so many decades distant might be waiting to pounce on her -- right in her own home.

It is only by the end that the reader can see, with utter clarity, what this novel has been the entire time. Once the reader does know, the entire narrative is brought into focus, revealed as a masterwork of subtlety and penetrating psychological insight. As with an oil painting, the whole picture can coalesce only when viewed from a distance, and readers may feel compelled to reread the book for the details they missed the first time. There are rewards to doing this -- the kind that creep down your spine like a trickle of ice water.

Harriet's narrative voice is multi-layered, the busybody old maid just a varnish on its surface. There are hints of Harriet's multiple dimensions, such as her avowed status as a "freethinker," her affinity for cigarettes and her envy of modern women who benefit from the freedom that was denied her in the 19th century. A contemporary reader may find these are Harriet's more likable qualities, in contrast to her prying demeanor and fussy old maidishness. But few hints will prepare most readers for what is to come. Don't be fooled by this novel's stuffy exterior: It is psychological horror at its most unnerving.

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness.

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