Although this is a debut novel, it shows almost too much perfection. Harris, herself Irish and living in Scotland, has invented a truly convincing, lively and often funny character with Bessy Buckley, the 15-year-old heroine of this vic-lit novel, set in Scotland in 1863.
We hear the story exclusively from Bessy, and it is her genuine, original voice that makes even the weirdest details of the plot convincing. Bessy has come from Ireland to Glasgow with her prostitute mother and is introduced to the trade at the age of 13, her mother posing as her sister, and, if required by special customers, her lover. Although the girl has a terrible life, we never hear a word of self pity from Bessy, and it is with gratitude only, that she speaks of old Mr. Levy, who she is sold to by her mother as his joy of old age.
When he dies, she flees Glasgow and happens to find employment at Castle Haivers, an old, run-down estate, where she has to work for “missus” Arabella Reid under the condition, that she writes about her work and thoughts in a journal given to her by missus.
The first chapters are a bit difficult to understand, being written in a mixture of the Irish and Scottish vernacular of servants in the Victorian era, but soon Bessy and the reader improve their grip of the language.
Bessy´s eye and sharp wit escapes nothing that goes on in this strange household and neighbourhood, and by eavesdropping and secret “research” she soon finds out, that her missus not only has a dark secret, but also employs her only to study the way of the serving class and write about her findings in “The Observations”, a book, she plans to publish.
Bessy is furious, and decides to pay back in kind. She invents the spooky ghost of Nora, a maid that has mysteriously found her death some time ago.
But Arabella, frail and a bit odd from the beginning, becomes completely unhinged and is confined to her room by her husband and the doctor.
Bessy is devastated and ready to do almost everything to make amends for what she has done to her beloved missus.
Harris describes through Bessy a world, where man are either dangerous for women or a complete fool or both. The only reliable relationship can be formed between women, who trust and love each other. That this concept is set in Victorian times makes it even more fascinating and a bit sinister.