Review

The Observations

by Jane Harris

Fifteen-year-old Bessy Buckley "had reason to leave Glasgow," but that reason she'll tell you later on. First, she wants to start at the beginning of her story. In her journey along the Great Road toward Edinburgh --- which she made on foot, for this is 1863 and the automobile is a ways off yet --- she encounters a lady chasing a pig, which she thinks looks like tremendous fun. She stops to see if she can help. This woman turns out to be the mistress of Castle Haivers, a grand manor that is a little the worse for wear by the time Bessy gets there, but the offer of work as a maid is a far cry better than what she left in Glasgow.

A strange but electric kind of relationship builds between the maid and the lady of the house. Even a bold and bawdy young Irish girl fleeing a questionable past needs someone to love and care for. Bessy forms a fierce attraction for her mistress, with an almost desperate desire to please. Unfortunately, lady Arabella exhibits some unique behavior, eccentric at best. Right off, Bessy notes "…there was something queer about all this…you could have sensed it a mile off downwind with your eyes blindfolded your nose blocked your ears stopped up and a cork in your hole."

Well, Bessy can read and write, to Arabella's delight, and the lady takes it upon herself to teach her more proper ways. She asks her, as she has all her previous maids, to keep a journal of her daily doings. Bessy writes freestyle, without the bother of commas and periods, which she deems about as understandable as goat droppings. As Arabella gets her to pay more attention, more punctuation finds its way into Bessy's story. If currying favor with missus means learning how to use those funny dots and squiggles, so be it.

Bessy is about as honest a person as you'll meet, taking responsibility and all its repercussions without a flinch, whether she deserves to or not. She doesn't care one bit what others think of her --- except, that is, for missus. As she goes about her duties, Bessy (not exactly nosy but let's call her unusually curious) makes some disturbing observations of her own about her mistress and Castle Haivers. Lady Arabella's odd requests leave Bessy flummoxed, to say the very least, a state she does not handle well, and it prompts her to probe deeper to make sense of what's going on. What she finds out is heartbreaking.

Bessy's is the freshest voice to come along in a long time. Totally unpretentious, plainspoken, blunt and highly observant, Bessy tells it like it is, and a bit like it isn't, if the truth be told. It is sometimes hard to tell whether she is making up words and phrases or whether they are Irish colloquialisms, but they are all hilarious. Case in point: Pig's pizzle, one of my favorites. And she has many, many more.

THE OBSERVATIONS will make you laugh and it will make you cry, and it will be remembered for a long time to come. Told by the highly entertaining narrator, Bessy Buckley, it is utterly unputdownable.

Reviewed by Kate Ayers on June 8, 2006

The Observations
by Jane Harris

  • Publication Date: June 8, 2006
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Viking Adult
  • ISBN-10: 0670037737
  • ISBN-13: 9780670037735