May 18, 2013 § Leave a comment
If I was to recommend a Scottish book to you that is based on religion you may rightly have some preconceptions as to what it would be like. It may be a generalisation but Scotland and religion tend to mix like oil and water, or perhaps oil and fire is a better example. Many of the books looked at in these pages have alluded to religious divisions even when they don’t deal with them head on, so it is perhaps understandable when a writer decides to write a novel that concentrates on one religion they make it Buddhism.
But this is no cop out. Anne Donovan’s debut novel ‘Buddha Da’ is about a man feeling lost and looking for something new. It is important to the story that we realise that the man in question, Jimmy, begins the novel as a confirmed atheist having been raised Roman Catholic. This is someone who does not decide to change faith, but goes looking for something new, or at least a system of belief that will make sense of his, as he sees it, unfulfilled life. Often mid-life crisis are stereotyped with ear rings, affairs, motorbikes or disappearances. Jimmy feels that his life is missing purpose and a chance meeting with a Buddhist monk in a café gives him the idea of where to look for it.
The novel deals with notions of the individual, their needs and desires, within a family unit. Jimmy believes he wants to better himself, at least spiritually, but in attempting to do so alienates his family. How far do you subjugate your own ego to keep things sweet with those who you live with? At the beginning his wife Liz is bemused, but amused, at Jimmy’s new found interest, happy that he has not fallen for the more base mid-life stereotypes. But when she realises that this includes a vow of celibacy, and leads to his missing family events including his daughter Anne Marie’s school play, her concern grows and patience runs out. Indeed it is Liz who is tempted into an affair with a young philosophy student who she sees as her chance to also ‘better’ herself.
Anne Marie is the third character and, as is often the case, it is the child who is the voice of relative reason as she watches her parents grow further apart. She provides the karmic balance and it is her faith in her parents that pulls her family through this particular crisis. Although the drama comes from the older two, it is Anne Marie’s voice that is most considered and identifiable to the reader.
Donovan’s mastery of the three individual voices is a standout of the novel. Written Scots dialect is a hard thing to get right, and is terrible to read when it is wrong. If you don’t believe me try it for yourself. Donovan not only manages to pull it off, but does so three times with the characters of Jimmy, Anne-Marie and Liz all having their own voices, but also speaking in a language that recognisably belongs to each other. Sometimes the language verges on the poetic, or at the very least lyrical. Donovan manages to make the Glasgow dialect sing from the page.
One of the accusations against ‘Buddha Da’ is that it is too a comfortable novel, one that begins to morph into ‘chick-lit’ territory as it progresses. I can’t agree with this. While it is true that the two female characters take precedence in the second half of the novel, I think it is too simple to view this as a lessening of the novel’s worth. I see it as a move from the often broad comedy as worlds collide in Jimmy’s sections, to a more moving story as it becomes increasingly possible that Anne Marie’s parents will separate. Perhaps it does become a more recognisable story, but books don’t work like that. We need the characterisation as set out at the beginning of the novel to care for these people right to the end. I agree that Jimmy’s character is the most enjoyable in comedic terms (although some readers find him infuriating), but the heart of the story is to be found with Anne Marie. She is the innocent, the one who deserves the most consideration, but finds herself trying to rectify the often selfish actions of her mother and father.
There is an argument to be had that the novel is disrespectful to Buddhism, but I don’t buy that, and I don’t think many Buddhists would either. Having visited and had conversations with some of the monks who work in the Buddhist Centre on Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow they are more like Jimmy, or me for that matter, than you may imagine. It is obvious that Donovan, who has been to several Buddhist retreats and practices meditation, has also been to the same centre as her descriptions of its interior when Jimmy visits then stays there are photographically accurate. I doubt that she would have written this novel without thorough knowledge of the religion and those who practice it, and some of the novel’s most glowing reviews can be found in Buddhist magazines, journals and websites. I know that humour and religion can be uncomfortable bedfellows, people can get very upset, but I believe that few if any Buddhists would be upset by the portrayal of their religion in this novel.
The humour is directed towards Jimmy and his search for some form of enlightenment, and while it is one that takes over his life for a while, you feel it is always going to pass. It seems to require more stamina than he can muster, and it is the idea that appeals most of all. The meditation, the solitude, even the celibacy that he practices are his attempts to have some form of control over his life. His flirtation with Buddhism typifies a certain modern western desire to turn to the east in an attempt to find meaning in life as the certainties of Christian based religions appear to fade. You can read this as saying ‘faith is futile’ or you can say that this novel is about tolerance, religious or otherwise. This is not a judgemental novel, it is one of understanding. It is not that Liz must respect Jimmy’s needs, but that he must also respect hers, and they both must consider their daughter first.
‘Buddha Da’ is not your typical Scottish novel, but then Anne Donovan is not your average Scottish novelist. Both this and her second novel ‘Being Emily’, while not denying many of the Scottish types, give them more humanity and warmth than many other Scottish writers would even consider is necessary. The writer I’m most reminded of when I read her stuff is Roddy Doyle, particularly the ‘Barrytown Trilogy’. I said when previewing this novel last month that Anne Donovan is one of Scotland’s few optimistic writers. In case you’re in any doubt, this is a good thing.
Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae.
Next month’s novel: Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ is one of the few modern Scottish novels that can properly be considered a classic. Gray is an incredible artist who is perhaps as well known for his painting as his writing these days, but it is in his writing that he truly excels. ‘Lanark’ is a complex novel, one which was over 25 years in the writing, and which is artful in every detail. It is biography, fantasy, realist novel and puzzle. Reading ‘Lanark’ is a real undertaking, but your life will be better when you finish the last page.
Hugely influential not only on Scottish literature but further afield, if it was up to me ‘Lanark’ would be taught in all Scottish schools. It is not only one of Scotland’s great novels, but simply one of the great novels.
Next 5 books:
- Alasdair Gray Lanark (Oct)
- James Robertson The Fanatic (Nov)
- James Kelman Kieron Smith, boy (Dec)
- Suhayl Saadi Psychoraag (Jan)
- Ron Butlin The Sound of My Voice (Feb)