Gillian uses fiction to explore the world of illness. Her debut novel, Brodie, is a love letter to Muriel Spark. It playfully leans into her dark humour and pays homage to both Spark and the world of Jean Brodie she created.
Brodie is narrated by an object. It begins in the spring of 1988 as Sandra Galbraith runs her long, curious fingers over a bookshelf tightly packed with the titles of her favourite writer, Muriel Spark. She’s on a quest to find the perfect gift for her niece, Violet, and plucks Brodie, a pristine new copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie from a cluster of identikit books. Brodie adores Violet and is devastated when her brother, Thomas, steals his sister’s treasured book to give to a disinterested love interest. On the thirty-year journey back to Violet, Brodie passes through hands and lives and is witness to death, sex, and a wicked stepmother.
Brodie’s experiences mirror something of what it is like to live with multiple sclerosis: the unwelcome intervention, confinement, and oddness that an MS relapse will inevitably bring. Hungry for information, Brodie is able to see, hear, smell, intuit, and can communicate with other objects. Brodie cannot, however, move unaided. This existence may be marked by limitation and a lack of control, but it is full and vital thanks to Brodie’s keen interest in the lives and stories of others. Betrayal – a nod to the tendency towards treachery that a body with MS seems to possess – is a theme that, in common with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, threads through the novel. However, it is Brodie’s longing to return home to Violet (life before) that drives the narrative.
Below are some early reader comments for Brodie:
Louise Welsh, author of nine novels including the multiple award-winning, The Cutting Room, and Professor of Creative Writing at Glasgow University:
Written in a razor-sharp voice that is both playful and beguiling, Gillian Shirreffs’ Brodie is a subtle exploration of the world through objects. The novel draws on Muriel Spark’s iconic text, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but Brodie is more than a tribute or an entre into the world of Spark. This is an original novel which will draw readers who know what it is to fall deeply in love with a book. It is both a transcending read and a love letter to the power of literature.
Zoe Strachan, award winning author of Negative Space, Spin Cycle, and Ever Fallen in Love:
An intricate, stylish novel that illuminates the world of its unusual narrator through tender, flowing prose. I found Brodie a fascinating and moving read. Shirreffs is a bright Spark indeed!
Jenn Ashworth, Professor of Writing at Lancaster University and award-winning novelist whose books include A Kind of Intimacy, The Friday Gospels, Fell, and Ghosted:
Intriguing, playful and thought provoking.
Olga Wojtas, journalist and former editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement whose novels include the Miss Blaine’s Prefect Series and, under the pseudonym Helena Marchmont, The Bunburry Cosy Mystery e-series:
Charming, unusual and poignant – the intriguing concept of a book observing human relationships as it passes from one “guardian” to another. The book’s thirty-year-long journey encompasses celebration, loss, theft and death but ultimately reaches its rightful home.
Dr Elizabeth Reeder, writer and academic whose novels include An Archive of Happiness, Ramshackle, and Fremont:
I consider Gillian Shirreffs a Muriel Spark for the 21st century. The writing in her first novel, Brodie, is exquisitely crafted and observed, and witty too. This wonderful novel is narrated by the somewhat opinionated Brodie, who is a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who will entertain from first page. Through Brodie we can witness but seemingly not physically impact the world we inhabit, and this novel could be considered an illuminating meditation on chronic illness too. But here’s the trick, books come to life in our imagination and often change us irrevocably. This is particularly true of Brodie (book and narrator) who is rendered with attitude, grace, and opinion by Shirreffs. This is a book to relish, that will take pride of place on your bookshelf, and it’s a book that should be gifted and passed from hand to hand, so we can remember how we can be changed by what we read, by what we are encouraged to imagine.
Sandra Ireland, critically acclaimed author of Beneath the Skin, Sight Unseen and The Unmaking of Ellie Rook:
When Gillian shared the first few chapters of her novel BRODIE with me, I wasn’t sure how I would react to it. This novel, she informed me, is narrated by an inanimate object, a book! I was intrigued. How could this work? I am pleased to say that it does! Here, we have a fresh, compelling take on the ‘outsider’- this artefact occupies a place on the periphery of the action, a witness to the unfolding of key events in the lives of the characters, but its role also demands a certain intimacy. Any book lover will tell you that certain volumes are privy to the worst and best of times in their lives, and the premise of BRODIE plays beautifully with that assumption. This is the book that explores the notion of ‘if only they could talk’ and does it extremely well. Gillian has created an original and engaging voice for the ‘book’, and as it changes hands, it introduces us to a fascinating cast of characters, all of whom connect with, and are ultimately affected by, this ‘inanimate object’ which is much more than it seems.
Brodie: A novel narrated by an object, to explore the relationship between object and illness (with specific reference to Multiple Sclerosis). The narrator, Brodie, is a copy of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, who passes from hand to hand over several decades, picking up the life stories of Brodie’s guardians as they go. Read an extract here. For an insight into the genesis of Brodie, see Gillian’s blog post for the MS Society
Libbe: A short story about a fictional Scottish village and the newcomer who wins the villagers over thanks to a mobile library. Published in The Common Breath. https://thecommonbreath.com/blog48.html
The Appointment: A short story exploring the experience of illness, dealing with its subject with humour and empathy. Published at The Interpreter’s House. https://theinterpretershouse.org/shirreffs74
Gillian also has guest-written blog posts for the MS Society, among others:
How writing helps me manage my MS pain
What I’ve learnt from MS about surviving a lockdown
Writing a novel allowed me to explore my MS
Poetry and Plays
Gillian has written various poems, especially as a way to alleviate chronic pain. Some of her poems exploring the experience of illness have appeared in MSConnect, The Second Tide and Tracks in the Sand.
In 2015, she was selected for the Playwrights’ Studio, Scotland mentoring programme and was mentored by Peter Arnott. The result of this was a one-act play performed in Wisconsin in 2016.
Other Publications of Interest
Dostoyevsky Wannabe: Glasgow
Gillian has been working with Georgi Gill on a literary adventure that’s part-journal part-pen pal letters. An extract from this project, Singular Together, will be published in the upcoming Dostoyevsky Wannabe: Glasgow anthology.
Stories from Home
Gillian has two stories in the anthology Stories from Home edited by Hayleigh Barclay and Sylvia Hehir. All proceeds from the book will be donated to the Ambulance Staff Charity. Gillian’s stories appear alongside contributions from Louise Welsh, Zoe Strachan, Una McCormack, Carolyn Jess-Cooke, Olga Wojtas, Leela Soma, Colin Herd, and more.
Tales from a Cancelled Country
This anthology from thi wurd celebrates new Scottish voices and the fiction collected offers snapshots of a place through the eyes of its inhabitants, revealing their hidden fears and desires as well as their struggle to find their own voices. Gillian’s Croy Shore is included.