Unabridged audios are the finest thing ever when the TBR is high and most of the working week is spent in the car.  The latter has applied to me over the past few weeks and, it must be said, Jane Harris has been a great companion.  For it is Jane herself reading the the Clipper version of her 2006 Orange long-listed novel.

Now it’s a rare thing but I may just have enjoyed listening to this audio book more than I would have enjoyed reading the book.  Jane Harris (a trained actress, I think) has a wonderful range of voices and accents from Bessie’s broad Irish twang to Arabella’s fine Englishness.  An unabridged audio gives the reader fine opportunity to perform and Harris certainly makes the most of it.

“The Observations” of the title is a notebook kept by Arabella Weir in which she notes the outcomes of the experiments she conducts on her domestics.  Bessie finds this one day and,  angry that she is the subject of an experiment involving psychological abuse begins to exact her revenge on her mistress – with unfortunate consequence for all concerned.  For Arabella is keeping a secret and Bessie’s pranks initiate the process of discovery ….  the irony being while trying to uncover her mistress’s past she must ensure that her own remains buried. There is a superb  buildup involving missing persons and ghostly going-ons.

The text is a delightful mixture of traditional C19th gothic plot told with a modern eye.  The sordid details of Victorian life – particularly those of a young Irish girl living in Glasgow – are shown in unflinching detail.  The bad guys are wicked and the good guys not always saintly.  Neither is Bessie. She is a tremendous creation.  She’s  full of humour, sorrow, wickedness, love.  Her emotional range too is broad.  At times she despises Arabella “her missus” but at others she adores her to the point of idolisation.  Bessie is wise and experienced beyond her years but she is only 14, so at times displays a breathtaking naiveity.  She speaks is a kind of Irish/Glaswegian slang and so her turn-of-phrase is at times indiscrete, coarse almost, but it is always colourful and inventive.  I particularly loved her not giving “the core of a cabbage” when she was indifferent.

The unabridged audio runs to 14 CDs / 15 hours +  and it’s a good listen.  However, there are peaks and troughs in the storyline.  The denouement in the second half takes far too long to unveil and the ending is weak and implausible.  So patchy, in fact, that I’m surprised this novel was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.

The 15th CD contains an interview with Jane Harris.  She describes the process of writing the novel and this may explain why the second half is weaker.  Desperate for money she submitted the novel for publication when she had only written the first 100 pages.  (It may have been more but the detail doesn’t matter here.)  Suddenly she has a book deal and an unfinished novel.  So the second half was written to a deadline.  She even had to go back and insert Bessie’s distinctive narrative voice as part of the revision process. 

Even so, the second half of the novel feels inferior to the first and that reduces the book to a rating.  The audio book, however, is . Jane Harris’s performance as narrator truly stunning.