My first real riveting read of the year; the first book to make me just want to keep going until it was finished, with as few interruptions as possible. The Observations is the type of book which makes you race to reserve their whole catalogue – I was gutted to discover it is her only novel, but I savoured it all the more for it.
The story is told by Bessy, Irish girl with a murky past and a smutty turn of phrase. She’s young and we join her on the run from a past life, already clearly a young lady who knows how to handle herself. The book is set in the late 1800’s in the north of England, an Irish girl on the run from a shaky upbringing in the slums of Edinburgh/Glasgow or wherever she chooses to say she came from at the time. The complex mixture of race and place neatly avoids stereotyping either of herself or the towns while giving the whole scenario a pleasingly unreal, story world feel. Nothing feels quite real throughout the book, nor does it ever slide into the fantastic either.
Bessy finds herself working as maid for a ‘big house’ that she happens upon, where life is definitely not quite as it seems. her ‘missus’ Arabella Reid, slides quickly from aristocratic and aloof to deeply odd and Bessy finds herself sliding around in the clutches of a woman who is both completely convincingly sane and clearly utterly bonkers. Bessy, young, impressionable and confused from an abusive childhood tries her hardest to be loved and needed but is unable to resist a spiteful prank when her feelings are hurt.
The prank goes wrong and Bessy, like so many damaged children, can only see herself as the soul cause of the results and tries, inevitably, to fix it. She is jealous, loving, sassy and determined, foul mouthed and individual and the story is told cleverly through a first person narrative of her writing up her experiences.
The Observations is nearly 500 pages long; at 250 I was thinking that it was beginning to look as if it had a pleasantly interesting, but not unpredictable end in sight – I was reading it on my Kindle, which gives you less focus on how far through the book you are. When I realised I was only half way through I was slightly stunned; what on earth was left? But then, a quirky take on a ‘maid below stairs, hard luck story’ takes a dramatic and sinister turn. It becomes a thriller, a mystery, potentially a ghost story, a tale of mental health and marriage and dysfunctional lives, a story about village hierarchy and over-reaching ambition blotting out the real truths of relationships and love.
Every time I thought I had a handle on how it was all going to untwist, it took another turn; every time it seemed to be on its way to concluding, another tail end of story would worm its way back to the front. It was, in an unassuming, almost clumsy, far from over-worked cleverness way, quite brilliant.
This book passes the Alison test, it passes the recommending test. It definitely passes the “will I read it or the author again test?” I’d say it is a must read.
9/10 for everyone.
(I’d give it a very mild, you’ll probably be just fine, BabyLostMother warning.)