The Observations – Jane Harris

More thoughts from 2007:

The Observations by Jane Harris is many things, funny, gripping, tender and an overall delight. Beneath the skillful use of clever, vernacular dialogue and mysterious goings on are shades of complex relationships and a twinship of longing and belonging.

Bessy Buckley is a worldly fifteen year old, running from a sickly unsavory family member who drives her from 19th century Glasgow into the countryside where she happens upon a run down mansion with a mistress in want of a lady’s maid. She enlists and discovers that her employer, Arabella, is a writer- of sorts. Arabella’s literary secrets and the unknowns surrounding them form the top layer of the novel. This alone makes for an enjoyable read. But there’s more than meets the eye in every way for readers of The Observations. The friendship between Arabella and her young maid carries a whiff of sexual infatuation and the mix of chemistries that can only be awakened when women become close. Jealousies, slights, outright confrontations and misunderstandings pervade the relationship between Arabella and Bessy while they shape the household concoctions of both women.

My fondness for Bessy began as she goes to bed hungry on her first night at Castle Haivers, a handful of parma violets from her pocket meager repast as she falls asleep. She is both child and woman, her shortcomings equally charming as her strengths. Bessy and Arabella become ghost hunters, each searching for a loved friend, Bessy amidst the living and Arabella the dead. The supernatural slice – if it can be called such- of The Observations is more a peek into the power of longing as it casts about for someone who can’t be found, an apparition that might be recognizable to anyone. The device is written lightly and adds an exotic dimension to the story without derailing it. This novel brings to mind two other reads, Alias Grace and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Harris’ use of Glaswegian dialect brings Bessy to life with a cache of humor and dignity. And a knapsack of sorrow which she keeps hidden and only slowly reveals to the reader.

My read of The Observations coincided with a trip escorting my mother to homecoming at our shared alma mater. I was in the last pages by the time we crossed into memory land, and I’ll always associate that weekend with the book and its theme of friends loved and lost. At my mother’s class banquet, the salads contained dandelion greens and pansies; I thought of Bessy’s parma violets as I ate the flowers and watched my mother basking in the company of her friends. The next day I stepped from the warm October sunshine into the cool of the old college dormitory, emptied by a late afternoon football game. Standing in the silent hallway before the door to my old room, number 123, I listened for voices from the past, yearning for laughter that would dispel the years and gather old friends close by once more. Their ghosts were all around. Like Bessy and her mistress, I struggled to make them stay.

(Re)Imagining Paris

What can meaningfully be said of an ordinary girl’s first visit to Paris? Not even a girl, really, as she’s lashed to an aging woman. And we all know that there is nothing more ordinary than someone barreling through, at first slowly with the anticipations and delays of youth, gaining speed and thrust on the rails dizzying towards the station. Forgive the tiresome metaphor — it’s inescapable coming so newly from places where trains are such staple — I was going to tell you about Paris.

Paris is, in one word, forgiving. The chorus of ‘pardon’ and ‘excusé’ which clings eternally to the molecules of the city, the foot journey that begins in one neighborhood and meanders harmlessly into uncountable others, original destination erased and continually supplanted, the blur of wealths and poverties amid the boulevards and the metro, the softening of the grand structures along the Seine, all amount to a giant sigh of relief and a free pass towards whatever transgressions might be found within the city.

Even the force of erasure that is the Parisian dog owner pulling fresh leavings from the sidewalk has its place in the sanction bestowed by the city. The easing flow of the language, vowels that clash into consonants, striking one another, instantly muted into that low bubble of eloquence and grace that is French. All of the elements smoothing, mixing, water coloring. Impressions.

Paris is a place that quite suddenly works its way into you, not so much with its shiny spots, though they have their place, but through the reflected light of glories that seep into every alley and gesture, bathing you in filigree, covering you and forgiving you for intruding.

So, what more can I tell you of the thread of a few days in Paris. Of course, I’ll always have it, tucked away for days when I need blending, some permission, lights. I went to Paris as a happy person would, smiling with people and delighting in their kindnesses and rituals. I ate the food and laughingly drank the wine. I touched the streets with light feet that eased me up and down long stairwells, fading into and out of the crowds.

I brought sorrows to Paris, failure, flaws, all there undeclared, trailing me into town and riding by my heels. Loneliness, doubt, grief, all the trappings- all the names- of pain. They were so close, the strands that would stumble me, the pebbles that would turn and fling me into the street, breaking bone and spell, to leave me splayed and thrown from the center. It didn’t happen.

I saw Paris with my oldest friend, someone who has known me since childhood and who has been unfailingly accepting, even when I’ve been unable to reciprocate and have been critical, sharp, cutting. We strolled, aimlessly at times, avoiding the main tourist stations, slipping down the side street, looking for small excitements, talking, listening.

We spoke of our many incarnations, individual forays within the intimate shape-shifting that has been our adult lives. We began as rockers, career girls, clothes horses, cock worshipers. Then, we found divergent roles, far from parallel but intertwined through will and tolerance. She has remained attuned to all that is new in fashion and music. I have tried marriage, only to fail spectacularly at finding a partner who simply liked me. I took on the shape of motherhood while she, basking in that particular indecision, allowed the form to pass. In midlife, we are still reinventing, she as ex-patriot and newlywed, and I as a nurse.

Maybe that is the story of Paris, the small Celtic village refurbished as metropolis, glamor and high life walking alongside the provincial and quiet. It is a city where two old friends can meet and find what they are each looking for. My friend found Prada and I found Galignani, just as we are finding ways to become more like ourselves. I have four words of love soup for Paris – The city discovers you.

My favorite Paris photo