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on 21 February 2008
A very worthwhile couple of hours have I invested in this book. The spirit and the zest of the narrator carries all before her and there are several laugh-out-loud moments such as that hinted at in the title of my review. Jane Harris even manages to convey the horrors of child prostitution without resorting to graphic detail or even without the narrator demanding a sentimental reaction. Top storytelling and great style.
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on 2 December 2009
I can honestly say that this book is unique! From the very first page Bessy became a real person. I felt as though I was reading her mind, with the rich descriptions and outrageous similies that Harris uses. Bawdy, yes, rude, no.
This book sensitively deals with themes that are often ignored in novels and therefore the reader is led to identify with a world that is mercifully foreign to many of us.Nevertheless, such painful lifestyles are experienced by people all over the globe.
This was a book that I found hard to put down and I was gutted when I finished it.Please bring back Bessy, Jane. We are desperate to find out what she does with her life!
I am awaiting more novels from this exraordinary author!
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on 29 May 2007
The novel is set in late 19th century Scotland and tells the story of Bessy Buckley, a young Irish girl, who is desperate to flee from her difficult, dark past. Her escape route to Glasgow leads her past a country estate - Castle Haivers - where she finds employment as a respectable, though clueless maid. Bessy latches on to her employer, the beautiful, but seemingly odd Arabella Reid. Their complex `friendship' as well as the mysterious death of Bessy's predecessor, Nora, form the core of the book's plot line.

The Observations has been short-listed for the Orange Prize for fiction 2007, but I would be very surprised if it won (despite the fact that I've not read any of the other short-listed books). Not to say this is a bad book, not at all. Actually, it is extremely well written and for a first book it is fantastic. Jane Harris's use of language is marvellous and her story telling entertaining. Bessy is a very likeable character with a good sense of humour and the book's narrative is easy to follow. Jane Harris writes honestly and unpretentiously, giving the book a nice and light feel.

But, a prize-winning book needs more than that. It needs to be ground breaking, moving, exceptionally creative or thought provoking and The Observations is none of these things. It's just a simple tale, which I'll probably forget all about in a few years time. Considering the lack of a surprising and spectacular ending, it's also way too long. Therefore, despite being a good book, I won't be going out and buying tons of copies for friends and family and hence I can't really recommend it wholeheartedly here. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading the book and believe that Jane Harris is an author to look out for in the future.
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VINE VOICEon 20 February 2008
The Observations is the debut novel of Harris and I hope there are more to follow.

It follows the story of Bessy who has many secrets from the past and who encounters the slightly odd and rather misguided Arabella Reid who lives with her mainly absent husband James in Castle Haivers, near Glasgow. The story develops as we read about Bessy's experience of living and working in the shadow of the mysterious Nora, as well as coping with the random requests that the 'missus' asks of her. The minor charcters, Reverend Pollock, Hector and Janet to name a few intertwine amongst the two main characters and add to the plot but also the sub plots running through.

This is a long journey in terms of emotions with both characters, and despite the rather strange events, which in part are the victim of Bessy's revenge but already tap into a weakness that Arabella obviously has, it causes the relationship between Arabella and Bessy to change.

This relationship between maid and mistress is the strength of the book, that is what the 'observations' are - Arabella's Observations on maids - a rather odd but nonetheless interesting diversion which she has created for her own amusement or for public interest - you will never know?

The book is written from Bessy's voice, sometimes it can be read as she is sat chatting about all that has happened to her but other times it does read like a perosnal story written down being retold some years later (though not sure how old Bessy is as she recollects). The language and the slang take a while to get into and there were some words I didn't understand but this didn't stop me enjoying the novel, it just made Bessy more quirky. My one pet hate was showing half expressed as 1/2 through the book - it was slightly odd to see figures suddenly appear.

The reason for 4 stars and not 5 because I was in two minds. All the ends are tied up nicely, but there could have been so much more made of the asylum (I agree with previous comments of a modern day Priory though)this was rather glossed over, and had so much more potential in showing more of the relationship between the two main characters.

I also felt I could not make the decision whether Bessy caused all these problems with or without malice in mind, or Arabella was a weak (yet strong - oxymoron I know) person who was easily isolated in her role and place in life and in the house with nothing else to fill her days.

I will certainly be interested in any further books that Harris writes and hope they are just as meaty and character rich as this was.
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on 30 May 2011
The heroine, and faithful scribe, of this tale is one Bessy Buckley, or so she introduces herself. She's a young Irish girl, running away from a mother who has ruthlessly exploited her from an early age. She arrives at a ramshackle mansion, somewhere near Edinburgh, where she is taken on as a housemaid by the mistress of the house, Arabella Reid. The 'missus' as she calls her soon has young Bessy confused and bewildered by a succession of seemingly random and mostly pointless requests. And every night she must write an account of the day's events along with her inner thoughts. Despite all this Bessy develops a fierce loyalty for her mistress and then she finds out, by the chance discovery of Arabella's in-progress book 'The Observations', what the object of her devotions is really up to and tellingly what her opinions of Bessy are.
What happens next is best left for the story to tell, but it is a fascinating read that weaves, Bessy's dark past, the mysterious fate of her predecessor, Arabella's paragon of all house maids, Nora, and Arabella's own secrets into a startlingly engaging narrative mystery. Bessy is a wonderful character, who colours her tale with the most vivid and sometimes lurid slang and colloquialisms. I'm often put off by such inclusions, though in this case they are pretty much essential to the style and don't distract at all. Though being a native of northern England, where many of the expressions are still in common use or fondly remembered from use by my Grandparents, I could be more immune from irritation than the average reader. Bessy is also not averse to casting ridicule on the people she recounts by exaggerating or over annotating their speech patterns and accents. The more she despises them the more extreme the exaggeration. I think it's no accident that Hector, the sex obsessed Highlander, gets the brunt of it.
The Observations is an excellent début novel. I've read the latest book by Jane Harris, 'Gillespie and I', which appeared some 5 years after 'The Observations' - so if you enjoyed this book I'd recommend you look it up with all due dispatch.
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on 31 July 2014
This is a wonderfully entertaining take on the Gothic novel, set in mid-Victorian Scotland. The plot will not surprise readers of 19th century novels and their modern adaptations, but it is well told and nicely paced. The author offers us religion, madness, sex, passion, politics, coal mines, the steam train, sex, passion, poetry, alcohol, opium, soirees in Edinburgh and binges in the bothies.

Jane Harris populates her fictional Snatter [!] with fantastic characters – Biscuit Meek [few words but spits a great deal], the Curdle sisters and AP Bastard Henderson, the grocer. Uprooted posh from Wimbledon is the English flower Arabella Reid, mistress of Castle Haiver. And there’s a ghost.

Into this world comes the truly amazing Bessy Buckley, as she calls herself. She combines acid wit with shrewd character assessments delivered in a divinely earthy language. Despite her tender – or not so tender – years her background has prepared her for the less pleasant aspects of human nature – she is nobody’s fool. She is also utterly caring and has the proverbial heart of gold.

The goings on at the Castle and in Snatter are narrated in a “Dear Reader” style by Bessy. The reader becomes utterly charmed and captivated by her - as many reviewers have declared here.

The author has done her research as acknowledgements show but while pretty accurate it is not heavy on the history. It’s worth noting that experiences of child prostitution are related in a kind of faux naif, humourous manner, which may jar with some.

Finally, for me, this is one of those books you want your friends to read just so you can recapture highlights with them – “Oh,yes, and the bit where..and the part when..oh and when she ..l”. Definitely better than a box of favourite chocolates - for sharing.
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on 2 October 2012
I have had this novel for sometime and have only just got round to reading it. If I had known how good it was I would have made time sooner! It is a pure delight to read something so entertaining you find yourself laughing out loud at almost every turn of the page whilst biting back tears as you see how tragic it really is. The star of the show is wee Bessie who narrates this original tale of life as a serving maid to a Victorian upper class family at Castle Haivers. Theres something in here for everyone; secrets, mystery, murder, ghostly goings on all within this strange family she finds herself working for. All the characters which appear within this story hold your interest throughout but it is Betsy herself, with her razor sharp observations, wit and spirit as she tries to fit into this very disturbed household which captivate the reader. One thing I would advise; a lot of the dialogue is Glaswegian/ Irish (quite a mix!)and it might be a good idea to have a dictionary close by as if you are not familiar with their " banter" you could come a wee bit unstuck eg: oxters are armpits, skelly-eye is a quick look, tellt means I told, "Jesus Murphy" should be Irish J. M and Joseph (I think!) and so on. I hail from Ireland now married to a Glaswegian and still find some of the expressions a mystery so take my advice!! This novel is divine, pure entertainment from start to finish and guaranteed to put a smile on your face for a long long time, please try it!!
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on 22 June 2012
(3.5 stars)

Bessie Buckley isn't quite all she might seem from first appearances, but she manages to talk the lady of Haivers Castle, Arabella, into giving her a chance as maid. She tries hard to do everything that's expected of her, despite her new mistress' randomly changeable moods, and sometimes odd requests. Bessie's history gradually comes out into the open, and her curiosity about the maids who preceded her lead her into the discovery of an experiment being conducted by Lady Arabella, something she calls, 'The Observations'.

Bessie is hurt to discover that she is just part of an experiment, having grown very fond of Arabella, who had in turn written some things in her observations of Bessie which were not entirely complimentary. She considers simply leaving, but she realises the advantages of her situation, and so instead plays a prank on her employer, leading her to believe that a previous maid's ghost is haunting her. The 'haunting', however, goes slightly further than Bessie intends, and suddenly there really do seem to be ghosts on the horizon as Bessie's past seems on the verge of catching up with her, and Arabella is either truly seeing ghosts or she is losing her mind.

This book is really good fun, an easy read that you won't want to put down. Sarah Waters' 'Fingersmith' remains in a class of its own, but her fans will still find worthwhile entertainment within Harris' pages.
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on 14 December 2011
By rights this book should be quite sad and depressing. Jane Harris has written the character of Bessy so well that I became rather fond of her by the end of the book. Despite a dreadful start to life Bessy is brave, kind and loyal and sharp as a tack. She is also absolutely hilarious. I laughed out loud at several points in the story, especially at the names she invents for people. When her previous master had died Bessy kept a rather unusual momento of her time with him. She is hiding all sorts of dreadful secrets and she isn't the only one. This story is essentially a mystery told in a very original way. A terrific read.
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on 8 March 2011
'The Observations' is a highly entertaining Victorian-set page-turner in the vein of Sarah Waters' 'Fingersmith'.

The story is narrated by Bessy, a young Irish servant, who tells it like it is in her own unique style. While not formally educated, Bessy is extremely smart, surprisingly well read and far more worldly wise than her mistress - making for a lively and often hilarious journal. We first meet her fleeing her home in Glasgow, in search of a better life in Edinburgh. On the road, she comes across the Castle Haivers farmhouse, where she's promptly taken on as a maid by the rather eccentric Arabella Weir.

The story is brought vividly to life by our engaging heroine, taking in favourite 19th century themes of ghosts, madness and social status, with a dash of social realism and a lingering whiff of sexual scandal. And, like all good Victorian thrillers - which were often serialised in short sections with cliffhanger endings - it's full of twists and turns to keep you guessing: what really happened to Nora, the previous maid? Why is 'missus'' behaviour so erratic? And what exactly is Bessy running away from?

All in all, it's a great read that could easily be the next big Sunday night period drama - I'm picturing a sexed-up BBC adaptation with Billie Piper in the lead role...
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