Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Jane Harris – "The Observations"

Virtually every book one picks up in the bookshop nowadays had a cover which claims it to be an international best-seller or the winner of some prize or other. No such claims were made on the cover of ‘The Observations’ but it earns the Edwards Prize for the Most Original Work of Fiction, 2007. Not since I read “The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger (2005) have I found a book with such originality. This is a superb account of the life of a less than ordinary maid in a less than ordinary Scottish household. Even five sixth’s of the way through I was still unsure whether I was reading a murder story, a ghost story, or simply the tale of a Victorian maid caught up in unusual circumstances. I shan’t tell you which it turns out to be... The writing style is very believable and the setting – Scotland 1863 – really lives.

“So there I was with two pens, my two titties, Charles Dickens, two slices of bread and a blank book at the end of my first day in the middle of nowhere. Except as it turned out it wasn't quite the end ...” . In an attempt to escape her not-so-innocent past in Glasgow, Bessy Buckley - the wide-eyed Irish heroine of "The Observations" - takes a job as a maid in a big house outside Edinburgh working for the beautiful Arabella. Bessy is intrigued by her new employer, but puzzled by her increasingly strange requests and her insistence that Bessy keep a journal of her most intimate thoughts. And it seems that Arabella has a few secrets of her own - including her near-obsessive affection for Nora, a former maid who died in mysterious circumstances. Then, a childish prank has drastic consequences, which throw into jeopardy all that Bessy has come to hold dear. Caught up in a tangle of madness, ghosts, sex and lies, she remains devoted to Arabella. But who is really responsible for what happened to her predecessor Nora? As her past threatens to catch up with her and complicate matters even further, Bessy begins to realise that she has not quite landed on her feet.

JANE HARRIS was born in Belfast and brought up in Glasgow. Following university she trained as an actress and acquired an equity card by touring the alternative cabaret circuit with all-female acapella/comedy team ‘The Gumdrops’. Subsequently, she worked as a singer and then, realising she didn’t want to be an actress, left Britain for France and Portugal where she worked variously as a dishwasher, a waitress, a chambermaid and, finally, a teacher of English as a Foreign Language.

It was while she was in Portugal that she began writing short stories. These have since been published in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies. Her story ‘Those Nails’ was runner-up in the Penguin/Observer Newspaper Short Story competition in 1993 and she received an Arts Council Writer’s Award in 2000. From 1992-1994 she was Writer-in-Residence at HM Prison Durham.

She has also written a number of award-winning short films, two of which - Going Down (2001) and Bait (2000) - were nominated for BAFTAs. Going Down also won the prize for best short film at both the BBC British Short Film Festival and The Angers Film Festival and came second in the Turner Classic Movie Awards. Another short, Bubbles (1999) won awards for Best Film, Best Script and Best Story at the Italian TRINI Festival and was Best Short at the Leicester Film Festival. In 1999, Jane was shortlisted for the BBC’s Dennis Potter Award with her script Turning Back the Clocks.

The Observations is Jane Harris's first novel and is soon to be made into a film..

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