October 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
Scottish crime fiction is generally held to be a helpful category to be filed under if you want to sell books. The term ‘Tartan Noir’ is one that many find grating, but it has undoubtedly helped raise the profile of some of Scotland’s finest writers. The downside is that some may prejudge those writers, believing them to be an homogenous group dealing in crime clichés and formulaic prose. Nothing could be further from the truth. The gothic horror of Louise Welsh, the domestic nightmares of Doug Jonhstone, the black comedy of Christopher Brookmyre, the teak-tough working class dramas of William McIlvanney; all have found themselves collected together at festivals and on book shelves, but they are all gloriously different from one another. What does unite them is their ability to challenge the reader in a manner few other writers would dare.
Denise Mina is one of the most challenging in that she isn’t out to simply shock or unsettle, she wants to make you think. Her debut novel, 1998’s ‘Garnethill’, is notable not only in introducing one of Scotland’s most versatile and successful writers, but also because it brought crime fiction back to Glasgow after it had been largely absent since McIlvanney had stopped writing it in the early ‘90s. Christopher Brookmyre’s detective in ‘Quite Ugly One Morning’, Jack Parlabane, may have been Glaswegian, but we first meet him in Edinburgh, and Louise Welsh’s ‘The Cutting Room’ was still four years away.
The reasons for this are interesting to consider. The best-known writers in Glasgow at the time were Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. Through association with those two, people also thought of Archie Hinds, Agnes Owens and Jeff Torrington (whose ‘Swing Hammer, Swing’ is arguably THE great Glasgow novel). Glasgow seemed obsessed with literary fiction, as concerned with form and politics as much as content or plot. In Edinburgh, the success of Ian Rankin’s Rebus novels overshadowed a lot of other crime fiction, and it was a while before his influence would have its full effect. Also, infamous 1935 novel ‘No Mean City’ cast a long shadow over Glasgow even at the end of the century, and it was an image many were keen to shake off. That meant that a lot of artists avoided referencing the violence and fear that novel perpetuated. It just so happened violence and fear were right up Denise Mina’s city centre street.
I remember ‘Garnethill’ being published and picking a copy up straight away on the name alone. It was a bold move to give your novel such a definite sense of place, but it added extra interest for those who new the area. It had, and retains, its own quirky identity. Built on a hill in the middle of the city, it was multicultural, an artistic centre, a mixture of the new and old, and with plenty of bedsits and B&B’s for its residents. The geographical detail grounds the novel and makes what happens all the more visceral, and the novel announced a new voice in Scottish writing that refused to be ignored.
Mina’s writing is as refreshing today as the first time I read it; humorous, frank, fearless and with serious intent, and ‘Garnethill’ is the perfect introduction. It begins with Maureen O’Donnell becoming the prime suspect for murder after her boyfriend is discovered dead in her flat. Everyone seems to think she may have done it, which, considering the brutal nature of the crime, immediately asks questions about Maureen’s character. It soon becomes clear that she is part of a dysfunctional family, to say the least, and she has had mental health problems that others look to use as an excuse for any behaviour they see as ‘not fitting’.
It is in dealing with such matters that Mina is at her best. She cuts through the crap and reflects honestly on topics such as mental health, physical and psychological abuse, addiction, bigotry – not necessarily about these things directly, but more about people’s attitudes towards them. The stance of ‘pull yourself together’ is one which Maureen encounters, and even uses herself with reference to other characters. There is compassion in the novel, with some wonderfully strong relationships, but there is also intolerance, deception, selfishness and doubt. When Thomas Hobbes wrote that the nature of life was ‘nasty, brutish and short’, it appears he could have been describing it as viewed from a Garnethill bedsit.
There is also a lot of violence in ‘Garnethill’, but it is not gratuitous. There are descriptions that are incredibly vivid and graphic, but that is to convey the nature of the crimes and the brutality behind them. Late in the novel there is a discussion between Maureen and her close friend Leslie about what male body parts a woman would cut off as opposed to a man, and while there is a black comedy on show, serious points are also being made. It’s another area where Mina excels; getting the balance between serious and funny just right, a notoriously difficult thing to pull off. She also has an eye for a spot on cultural reference, such as Alex Cox’s movie ‘Repo Man’, a Shakin’ Stevens’ key ring, ‘Planet of The Apes’, Brylcreem and The Selecter, who play a pivotal role in events.
Denise Mina has become one of Scotland’s best known and revered writers. Aside from the Garnethill Trilogy, all focusing on Maureen, she has written the Paddy Meehan novels, (including ‘Field of Blood’ which was brilliantly adapted for TV), and the Alex Morrow novels. She has done fine work in the field of the graphic novel, with a run on Vertigo Comics’ ‘Hellblazer’(seek out the Glasgow set ‘The Red Right Hand’ which is a riot) as well as the Stieg Laarson Millennium Trilogy. She is one of the most accessible and thought provoking writers at work today. If you are one of those who never visit the crime section of your local bookshop, Denise Mina is well worth making that trip for.
Next Month’s Novel: Today there are many celebrated Scottish women writers, some of whom appear on these pages, but this wasn’t always the case. If you were to ask someone in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s to name a contemporary Scottish female writer they would more than likely say Muriel Spark, or perhaps look back to the ‘30s and cite Willa Muir and Catherine Carswell.
One name they should have mentioned was Jessie Kesson. Her 1958 novel ‘The White Bird Passes’ was critically lauded at the time, but she was largely forgotten when anthologies of 20th century Scottish Literature were being written. It’s an autobiographical novel that is as poetic as it is heart breaking. A forgotten classic.
September 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
Some of Scotland’s greatest writers have been bilingual in English and Gaelic. In the last 100 years there have been glorious examples, from Sorley MacLean, through Iain Crichton Smith and Derick Thomson, to Aonghas MacNeacail, Meg Bateman, Peter MacKay, and many more. Although all are distinctly individual, it does appear there is something in the nature of their bi-culturalism which lends the work otherworldliness, at the same time belonging yet standing apart. This comes not only from language and culture, but from place, history and a deeply felt sense of home, wherever that may be. If you want to understand Scotland in as wide a sense as possible, (past, present and future), you have to include such writers in your ‘must read’ pile.
One who you should definitely seek out is Angus Peter Campbell. His novel ‘The Girl On The Ferryboat’ is one of the best of this millennium in any language. It has been published both in English and Gaelic, and it would be interesting to hear from anyone who has read it in both. But while that is a bold move, it is perhaps the least interesting thing about this wonderful and surprising novel. Any book, which opens with a quote from David Hume’s ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, (a strong nomination for the greatest Scottish book ever written), has me at hello, and there are also early mentions of Sartre, Marx and Hegel to whet the appetite of those who read philosophy as well as literature. But while there are philosophical questions asked it is a novel that is mostly concerned with fate, luck, love and the passing of time, and as with all Campbell’s writing it is a lyrical delight.
It is in many ways a remembrance of things past as lives are examined with key moments and seemingly insignificant occurrences given equal importance as they make up ordinary lives rendered extraordinary by Campbell’s unforgettable imagery and poetic turn of phrase. Boy almost meets the girl on the ferryboat on a hot summer’s day. Over the years he has cause to think about her, allowing fantasy to comfort him when life is less easy. 40 years later, and the same two people meet again in the same place, and the book concentrates (although by no means wholly) on their lives in the intervening years between these two moments. By that point you’ll be open to the possibility of such a coincidence as Campbell will have convinced you that anything is possible. Fate, serendipity, destiny or chance; whatever you want to call it you’ll want to believe in it.
‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’ is a novel to be adored as it is about adoration of life, especially when that is reflected in others, and the stories that result and which nourish us when we need them to. It is not only about memory; it acts like memory taking you to places you don’t expect, and provoking feelings that are powerful and often disorientating. Campbell treats his readers with a curious mix of respect and playfulness, trusting them to go where he takes them, but taking great delight in wrong-footing them while he does so. The past and present intertwine, as stories told and songs sung do with reality, and you often have to work hard to try and separate these strands. Eventually you’ll realise it doesn’t really matter as writing such as this is as sensual as it is intellectual. Actually, it’s much more so.
It is magical, mythical and philosophical in the best possible way. It’s a novel about love and regrets, of which there are more then a few to mention, but which are balanced against the victories that also occur in a lifetime. If, while reading the final chapters, there are not tears on the page you are a stronger person than I as there is a stark reminder that fate can be cruel as well as kind. Campbell has written a book that is a celebration of life and all its possibilities. Another great philosopher, Bill Hicks, said that in life you had a choice between fear and love. There is no doubt which choice Angus Peter Campbell has made.
Next Month’s Novel: Tartan Noir and crime fiction continue to be hugely popular, commanding its own space in our bookstores, and spawning crime fiction festivals such as Bloody Scotland.
It could be argued that, the novel that has been most influential in this renaissance is Denise Mina’s ‘Garnethill’, and I’ll be doing just that next month, so have your counter arguments ready.
July 20, 2015 § Leave a comment
There are only a few novels which have dealt well with our age of celebrity, such as Brett Easton Ellis’s ‘Glamorama’, but there are hundreds of terrible novels written by celebrities, (‘A Mother’s Gift’ by Britney Spears, anyone? Thought not) which is a damning comment on current cultural concerns in itself. Luckily, Jane Alexander’s intriguing novel, ‘The Last Treasure Hunt’ is here to help right that balance. It’s nominally a mystery, which is really a commentary on the modern media and the current obsession with celebrity for celebrity’s sake.
The central character of Campbell Johnstone is beginning his 30s working in a Glasgow pub with no real prospects of anything else happening soon. A cocky youth, as we see in flashbacks, his hopes and dreams are rapidly diminishing at the same time as his friends and sibling’s careers are taking off, so when he gets the chance to piggy-back on an old acquaintance’s fame he grabs it with unbecoming relish, and with no little desperation.
Eve Sadler idolised Campbell when they were children, but now she is the idol, a world-famous film actor who has returned to Scotland to shoot her latest movie with Morgan Freeman (who did visit Glasgow to film 2005’s ‘Danny The Dog’ with Jet Li and the late Bob Hoskins, film fact fans). Campbell stalks Eve on-line using internet celebrity-spotting sites and soon finds out they are shooting ‘Never Setting Sun’ at Pollock Country Park in Glasgow, so he arranges to just happen to be in the area at a suitable time.
What follows is a tragic comedy, with the perfect balance of both. There’s a terrible event, and the fallout from that is a media feeding frenzy with Campbell at the centre of it, and the way he deals with matters is in turn despicable, but all too believable, and you have to ask the question, “What would I do?” in such circumstances. Campbell is pulled in one direction and another as he seeks to make the most of his new found fame, and with only a cursory thought for others. As matters spiral out of his control (although, he never really has any control), his need for self-justification for his actions increases as he alienates those he can trust, and listens to those he really shouldn’t.
Then there is also the mystery of the last treasure hunt itself, which gives structure to the flashback sequences, and they in turn give context to the relationship between Eve and Campbell, which adds a moving yet terrible poignancy. What works so well is that many things are revealed to the reader just as they are realised by Campbell himself, and we see that his lack of understanding and empathy, which stretch from plain selfish to border on the psychopathic, may be something more complex. Someone could write a paper on the fatal flaws of Campbell Johnstone, one of the most memorable characters of recent times.
I finished reading ‘The Last Treasure Hunt’ just as the promotion for Asif Kapedia’s documentary about the life and death of Amy Winehouse, ‘Amy’, was beginning and there is some correlation between the two in that the media create a caricature and look for a scapegoat in both, while never taking responsibility for their own part in what unfolds. The other text I was reminded of was Ernest Lehman’s 1950 short novel ‘The Sweet Smell Of Success’, which proves that celebrity worship and media manipulation are not modern phenomenon. What Jane Alexander has done is to look at these with a fresh and pleasingly cynical eye. The context may be the modern media, but this is a classic morality tale which, with it themes of betrayal, guilt, unrequited love, and regret, could have been written in any age.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: Some of Scotland’s greatest writers are bilingual in English and Gaelic, and one of the best of those is Angus Peter Campbell, so a new novel from him is something to celebrate. ‘The Girl On The Ferryboat’ is certainly that.
Beginning with a quote from David Hume’s ‘An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding’, it is a novel, which looks at fate, luck, love and the passing of time, and as with all Peter Campbell’s writing it is a lyrical delight.
June 8, 2015 § 1 Comment
There has been a lot of discussion lately on the value we put on art and its importance culturally and socially. With arts funding being cut, subsidies withdrawn, and academic courses in art and literature having their budgets reduced in favour of more financially lucrative schools of thought, we have to think seriously about the role the arts play in our lives, individually and collectively, and how far we should go to protect them. Add to the above the fact that many people now expect their music, film and writing for free, or at least as near as damn it, then surely the value is lessened and in danger of becoming lost.
The value of art is one of the main themes in Andrew Raymond Drennan’s latest novel ‘The Limits Of The World’. Set in present day North Korea, the central character is Han, a member of the Ministry of Communications who acts as a government sanctioned guide to the few foreign tourists who are allowed to visit his country. He makes sure they see the great and the good as the state decrees, and takes care they don’t witness any dissent which may have appeared spray-painted on the walls over night. He appears the model party man, but he has his own secrets to keep.
Han is a voracious, and courageous, reader who prefers his literature illicit, classic and western. In his private stash he hides the likes of Conrad, Dickens, Austen and Orwell, seditious material that could lead to his incarceration or death if discovered, yet he can’t let them go. Their value, for Han, is immeasurable, as they have become his reason for living, or at least living well. When he finds a like-minded soul in his apartment block in the form of cellist Mae, it excites him as much as it terrifies him as he has to fight against all his upbringing and instincts and learn to trust her as well as love her, which he does from the moment he realises she shares his passion.
Raymond Drennan’s North Korea feels not only like another place but another time. He helps the reader adjust to this unfamiliar landscape by having it seen at times through western eyes in the form of documentary makers Ben Campbell and Hal Huckley who are there undercover as tourists. They ask the questions that the North Koreans either can’t, or no longer feel the need to. Raymond Drennan has done over four-years of research for this book to make it as authentic as possible and it shows as what unfolds has the ring of truth about it, even at its most horrific.
Ben and Hal are also there to make us compare and contrast two political ideologies, not with the intent to state that one is better than the other, but rather to comment on both and show that no matter the ideal, the reality is you are dealing with individual human beings with all the hopes, fears, good and evil that entails. As matters progress the extremes of human nature are revealed, and it becomes clear that there is more that unites us than divides us, for better and for worse.
I should point out that despite its serious topics ‘The Limits Of The World’ is in no way an overtly earnest read. It is quite beautifully written, with some wonderful turns of phrase and memorable imagery. Raymond Drennan finds poetry in the ordinary and displays a romanticism that cannot be denied. It is also a thrilling read, with more than a few ‘heart-in-the-mouth’ moments, especially as the story reaches its end, and it can be read on more than one level. However, the book is a serious undertaking and the questions it asks should make you think carefully.
What I was left with after finishing was that question from the top of the page, “How do we, and how should we, value art?”. For Han and Mae it is a matter of life and death, and they are willing to lose everything for arts sake. You have to ask yourself how far you would go to read your favourite writer or hear your favourite song? Does turning art into just another commodity to be bought and sold, and increasingly given away, mean it loses value rather than increases it? These are important questions with no easy answers, but they must be addressed, as you don’t miss something until it’s gone, and then it’s usually too late.
*If you’d like to know more about Andrew Raymond Drennan and ‘The Limits Of The World’ you can listen to the Scots Whay Hae! Podcast interview with him here.
Next Month’s Novel: Scottish writing often gets accused of being too conservative in its ambition; often being historical fiction, gritty urban realism or Tartan Noir. Although all of those things have appeared on the pages of ‘Indelible Ink’, I hope there is evidence that the breadth of styles and themes is so much more than that.
As such it is always exciting when a new talent emerges with something new, and that’s what next month’s novel, ‘The Last Treasure Hunt’ by Jane Alexander, most definitely is. Described as “A modern media morality tale”, it is a mystery, which looks at the twin obsessions of fame and celebrity, and is one of most inventive novels you’ll have read in some time.
April 8, 2015 § 2 Comments
We have referenced the Chemical Generation of writers a few times on Indelible Ink, and featured the best of their work with Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’, Alan Warner’s ‘Morvern Callar’, Duncan McLean’s ‘The Bunker Man’ and Gordon Legge’s ‘The Shoe’. This month we feature the fifth entry into what I consider the Top Five Chemical Generation texts; Laura Hird’s ‘Born Free’. These novels give us a wonderfully evocative picture of a time when Scotland was politically impotent and compulsively introspective, and they are all, in their own ways, a comment on that culture and society as their protagonists switch off and drop out, losing themselves in simple, and often destructive, pleasures. Carefully crafted, and sharing a commitment to writing that is often underappreciated, these are not just some of the best Scottish novels of the last 20 years; they stand as equals with those classics from the ages.
Hird’s 1999 novel shares with the other novels mentioned a brutal honesty as she sets out vivid portrayal of lives that are never straightforward; lives which are challenging for those who are living them, and often are for the reader as well. There is teenage/underage sex, pornography, alcoholism, domestic abuse, bullying, adultery, and just about every other betrayal you can think of. Oddly enough, and a sign of the times, one of the most shocking scenes is when one character thinks nothing of driving home absolutely hammered. This is not only because this is something which society has deemed more unacceptable than it was in the ‘90s, but is also because sex and abuse, and sexual abuse, have become more ‘mainstream’ in the ways they are covered in the media and arts. It was interesting to note, after reading the novel for the first time in 15 years, what has come to be, if not exactly acceptable, then accepted, and what has not.
‘Born Free’ concentrates on one family consisting of Vic, Angie, Joni and Jake, and the individual chapters are narrated by each one of them in turn in a similar manner to Anne Donovan’s ‘Buddha Da’. Each of the family members stand alone, and all are speaking a different language to the others. This is especially true between the generations as the parents and children have very different ideas as to what it means to be a child, and to how children should behave. All of them use each other to try and gain the upper hand, and familial secrets and lies come to define their lives.
There are many things to recommend ‘Born Free’, such as Hind’s ear for everyday language and believable characterisation, but the real triumph is her ability to remind the reader of just how heartfelt, painful and confusing being young is. It’s become a cliché to say that there is no crueller place than the school playground, but Hird is a master at recalling exactly how brutal this time of life can be. She nails the language, sets out clearly what is important too teenagers, and what isn’t, and it can be shocking to be reminded of this. Perhaps that’s the problem; it’s not that we can’t remember clearly the uglier moments of childhood, it’s that we don’t want to.
I also have to mention the depiction of mum Angie and her alcoholism, which is mercilessly honest as it destroys her relationships and removes reality from her life. She epitomises what makes Hird’s characters so memorable. None of them are heroes, but there is a humanity to each one which makes you care for them even when they display the most appalling behaviour and decision making, and once you look past their actions, words and deeds you can still perceive the love they have for each other which is just about surviving through it all.
The more sensational aspects surrounding The Chemical Generation have tended to overshadow just how good a lot of the writing was. The references to sex and drugs, the links to Britpop and dance music, and the fondness for the movement in the style magazines of the day, meant that many critics overlooked the quality and commitment of the best writers. I would suggest that when you ignore the hype you have to accept what an important time in Scottish writing this was; one to rival the more critically regarded 20th century literary renaissances of the ‘20s and ‘70s.
The writers displayed an almost pathological need to tell their truths, and this was just what was needed at the time. Just as Gray, Kelman, Lochhead and Leonard inspired Welsh, Warner, McLean and Hird, so they in turn would inspire the next generation of Scottish writers, something which can be clearly seen in the work of Alan Bissett, Allan Wilson, Jenni Fagan and Vicki Jarrett. Some critics may not like to admit it, but their legacy is one of huge importance to Scottish writing and culture as a whole.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: Andrew Raymond Drennan becomes the first writer to appear for a second time on the pages of Indelible Ink, but I make no excuses for this as his latest novel, ‘The Limits Of The World’, is perfect for the Dear Scotland readership.
Set in Kim Jong-il’s North Korea, Drennan looks at censorship, freedom and the power of the written word, and it delivers on the promise of his earlier work in spades. Few writers would attempt a novel of this scope and ambition, but Andrew Raymond Drennan once again proves he is no ordinary writer.
March 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
Last year’s Commonwealth Games prompted a lot of discussion and debate about Scotland’s place in the Commonwealth, the creation of the British Empire, and, in turn, its role in the slave trade. Thanks to events such as The Empire Café and the ‘How Glasgow Flourished’ exhibition at Glasgow’s Kelvingrove many people learned a lot more about an area of Scottish history that has been overlooked. In terms of fiction, there have only been a few books that have tackled this subject head on, with James Robertson’s ‘Joseph Knight’ the most notable example. This month’s novel is a lesser known example. It is set in the mid-19th century and is a fascinating exploration into a specific time and place, and an attempt to build a New Caledonia on the other side of the Atlantic.
The novel is Chris Dolan’s ‘Redlegs’ and it follows Elspeth Baillie, an aspiring actress from Greenock who gets talent spotted, by way of the Georgian version of the casting couch. The Right Honourable Albert Coak is setting up a colony on the Island of Barbados and he wants to bring art and culture to his new sugar plantation, and sees Elspeth as the perfect face of his proposed theatre. Elspeth needs little persuasion to leave her family, excited by the lure of the new.
Initially, Elspeth blossoms in her Caribbean home, feeling her self grow taller and stronger away from the driving wind and rain of Inverclyde, and more confident as she grows into her role as Coak’s muse. She becomes the centre of attention in this new community, with many admirers, but it is with the enigmatic and headstrong George Lisle with whom she falls in love. Unfortunately, their happiness does not last long, and the land that has offered all of this opportunity then takes it away in breath-taking fashion.
It’s in the second half of the book that ‘Redlegs’ really takes off. Elspeth becomes the ‘lady of the house’ as 20 women from Scotland are shipped to the plantation with the promise of a better life in this new world. The idea is to set up a New Caledonia, and the women are there to try and ensure as pure a bloodline as possible to maintain its genetic purity, something which is doomed to fail from the start.
Questions are asked about nationalism, the rights of the individual versus the group, and what it means to belong. This bizarre undertaking falters almost immediately as factors such as a misunderstanding of their new home, human nature, and a twisted ideology of supremacy and entitlement prove to be hurdles too great to overcome, even if, initially, everyone appears to pull together. Elspeth becomes fixated with the inevitable new borns who arrive, looking for proof that her own lost love has somehow survived, and mourning the passing of her youth and dreams as reality takes hold. You are never sure if the way she copes with her life is down to self-deception, or is she is simply playing another role that someone has directed she undertake? Whatever the case, Elspeth Baillie is an unforgettable character.
Chris Dolan has written for stage and screen, and it shows in ‘Redlegs’ as not only is his knowledge of Scottish theatre obvious, the novel is one which would be easily adapted for TV, and I can see it as three-part Sunday night drama. The clash of cultures and climates of the west coast of Scotland and Barbados are equally vivid in their own way, and are another example of how harsh reality can help persuade people that life will be better elsewhere. In the same way as art and real life can never match up, the promise of New Caledonia is a fantasy when compared to the life these women have left behind, with their friends and family, but a dangerous, and often fatal, one. Dolan has written a novel which acts as an insight into a part of Scotland’s history it seems we would rather ignore, but also as a warning to the dangers of fictionalising a nation while ignoring those things which matter most.
Next Month’s Novel: We have spoken before in ‘Indelible Ink’ about ‘The Chemical Generation’ of writers from the late ‘90s, a group who included Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Gordon Legge, all of whom appeared in the influential collection of short fiction ‘The Children Of Albion Rovers’ as well as on these pages.
One of the few women involved in this group was Laura Hird, and her 1999 novel, ‘Born Free’ is one of the seminal texts of the time. Challenging, angry and with a black comic streak, it stays the right side of sensational to tell the story of a dysfunctional family struggling to cope.
February 23, 2015 § Leave a comment
The best novels are not simply great stories; the magic comes in the telling. Kei Miller’s 2010 novel ‘The Last Warner Woman’ is as much about storytelling as it is about the characters themselves. Miller plays with the reader’s perception of how a novel should be structured and examines how the same story must be different in every telling, and also in every reception. The result is a novel which delights in wrong footing the reader; just when you think you have a hold on the story Miller takes you in another direction, or introduces another point of view, and you almost have to start again, or at least rethink what you know.
‘The Last Warner Woman’ begins, as all the best stories do, with “Once upon a time…” as Adamine Bustamante tells her story to her erstwhile biographer, who she calls Mr Writer Man, and who you may or may not view as the real (unreliable?) narrator. This relationship is not an easy one as the interaction between writer and subject reveals different ideas as to how her story is to be told.
Born in a leper colony, Adamine’s life is extraordinary, although this is something she never seems to realise or admit for herself. To her it is just another life, and there is some suspicion as to why anyone would be interested in her. She is the last warner-woman, the name for a woman who warns about impending natural disasters, such as hurricane, tidal waves and earthquakes. The title is just a tiny example of the games played with language and expectations. Characters are known by multiple names, people and places are mentioned in conversation once as if you should know them, and then never again, and you can’t let your concentration drop for moment. It’s a novel which demands commitment from its readers, but that commitment is well worth it.
Miller brings the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Jamaica to life, and his novel is “a conundrum of colours”, to steal one of Adamine’s phrases. The colourful bandages that her mother made which are then used to treat the lepers are a personal highlight, but almost every page contains similarly arresting imagery. This is also a result of the most wonderful use of language. The expressive patois in which most of the novel is written is used to conjure imagery which is magical, and once you get a hang of reading it there is a cadence to the novel which is almost lyrical.
Aside from the way the novel is constructed, Miller has also introduced us to a fine array of memorable characters; most of whom are women. The novel is defined by the friendships with other women which Adamine has through out her life; from the maternal ‘Mother Lazarus’ to the ‘Nurse’ who treats her in the hospital she finds herself in in England when her portentous prophecies are seen as a sign of madness. Her relationships with men, however, are almost all destructive, and it is little wonder that she finds it difficult to trust ‘Mr Writer Man’ and his true intentions.
Miller is probably better known for his poetry, with his recent collection ‘The Cartographer Tries To Map A Way To Zion’ awarded the prestigious Forward prize (and which I can’t recommend highly enough), but I hope he finds time to write more fiction as there are not enough novelists willing to play with form and narrative with such confidence and élan. Whether you read it “straight” or “crossways”, ‘The Last Warner Woman’ is a lesson in how to construct a novel, and how to tell a story, in a fresh and interesting way.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: After ‘The Last Warner Woman’ we make the return trip from the UK back to the West Indies in Chris Dolan’s ‘Redlegs’. Elspeth Davies is a Scottish actress who gets a job on Barbados for the enigmatic plantation owner Lord Coak, which leads to a life she could never have imagined.
Dolan’s novel asks questions about nation and the ties that bind us to a place; past, present and future, as a New Caledonia is promised to Elspeth. In doing so colonialism and slavery are examined in a manner which is unexpected and, ultimately, courageous.
February 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
Scotland’s relationship with the rest of Britain hadn’t been as intensely discussed as it was last year since the Act of Union in1707. This was not only because of the Referendum, but also due to the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and other events during 2014, such as the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. The concepts of nation and national ‘pride’ were there to be considered and discussed in many forms, and aspects of this, such as Scotland’s often overlooked role in the building of Empire and the construction of Great Britain, were finally being examined, talked about and acknowledged.
Iain Maloney’s debut novel, ‘First Time Solo’, was published against this backdrop, and this adds to the novel’s impact, giving it layers that it may not have revealed even 12 months earlier. Timing and cultural context are crucial to any reading of a novel, it can’t be any other way, but they effect some more notably than others. On the surface ‘First Time Solo’ is about Aberdeenshire farmer’s son, Jack Devine, as he leaves to join the RAF in 1943, but what it reveals says much about Scots and Scotland, both then and now.
For training Jack is sent at first to London, where he meets, among others, fellow Scot, Joe, and Welshman, Terry. They bond over their shared love of jazz, forming their own trio which gives them something to take their mind of what is unfolding in the rest of Europe and which offers some hope of a future once the war is done. However, as their differences become clearer the initial bonds of friendship are tested and eventually break. Maloney gets the banter between the group, and the rest of the prospective pilots spot on, verging between the only recently left behind playground patter to the more explosive matters of politics and nationality between young men to whom a little knowledge is often more dangerous than none at all.
Maloney makes it clear that for all popular history may want to think of those who fought in World War II as being united against a common enemy, the truth is if you put that many young men from different backgrounds together then divisions are bound to reveal themselves. This is a realistic account of national service at the time, when the prospect of not returning home was only too real, and although there is always humour and irreverence on display in the novel it is clear this a defence mechanism used by all the boys to hide real fear and a lack of understanding as to what is ahead of them, and what is expected of them.
The music is key to the novel as it not only offer the boys an initial bond, it gives them lives and interests outside the war, and the writing is never better or more exciting than when they are getting ready to play, or when they talk about music. The only sections which come close are those when Jack is learning to fly, the other dream that has brought him to this place and time. His youth and naivety are too soon to be lost, but it is his excitement at the new, as well as his joy for the things he loves, and his compassion for the people he loves, which gives the novel a warm heart and is a welcome balance to the more cynical, or damaged, characters that are to be found.
‘First Time Solo’ appears initially like a boy’s own tale which could be easily lampooned in the manner of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’; with young men joining up to fight the bosh for King and Country, but, like that show, there is something more subtle going on. Maloney’s, and Jack’s, initial positivity mean that when tragedy does touch upon their lives it is more moving and believable than if it appeared inevitable from the beginning, as the reality of the situation comes crashing in on the young men. This is a book which will surprise you when you least expect it.
It is also further reaching than you may initially expect, with questions of class and culture closely examined, as is the concept of loyalty and just what that means on an individual and collective basis. Jack learns that everyone carries their own baggage, even when they don’t realise it, and that you can’t save everyone. As for what the novel says about national identity, it is a timely reminder of how that notion can be abused, and that there are often more important things to consider than where you are from or where you belong, something which can be forgotten.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: Kei Miller is writer probably best known as a poet rather than a writer of prose. His collection ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion’ was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize for Literature in 2014, but both his novels, 2008’s ‘The Same Earth’, and next month’s featured novel, ‘The Last Warner Woman’, (written during his time as first a student, then as a teacher of creative writing, at the University of Glasgow), are well worth your attention.
‘The Last Warner Woman’ is set in Miller’s home country of Jamaica, and is a fantastic example of a writer who is a master of style and language, and which touches upon the sort of magical realism that fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez will recognise and delight in.
December 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
James Kelman once stated that real drama is to be found in ordinary people’s everyday lives, and certainly the same could be said about real horror. The supernatural and fantastic may give us a shock or inspire nightmares, but our greatest fear and terror is surely based in reality; the dangers which can be found in the everyday. This is at the heart of Helen FitzGerald’s 2013 novel ‘The Cry’ which asks the reader to consider, not ‘whodunit’, but the much more challenging question of ‘what would I do?’. You may be quite clear in your mind to begin with, but FitzGerald makes you doubt yourself as perceptions are challenged, lies are uncovered, and dysfunctional relationships are exposed.
On a flight from Glasgow to Melbourne, Joanna Lindsay and Alistair Robertson’s 9-month old, Noah, is unable to settle, and his constant crying is not only shredding the nerves of his mother, but also disturbing their fellow passengers, which only adds to the pressure on Joanna. This very public disturbance means that there are plenty of character witnesses available for what unfolds later. As any parents’ worse fears become realised, Joanna will come to understand only too well that judgment comes easily to those with only a few of the facts. However, their judgment is nothing compared on that she pronounces on herself.
‘The Cry’ is a psychological thriller that is genuinely disturbing, partly because it is so believable, and because FitzGerald understands how vulnerable people can be manipulated. She is also aware of how the media works, as shown all too clearly in recent high-profile cases involving children, and while it would be wrong to overplay any similarities with those, the willingness for the media, both mainstream and social, to create and share their own narratives is spot on, something which Joanna eventually uses later in the book to get the reaction that she thinks is just.
Although the horrific situation is ostensibly Joanna and Alistair’s to share, this is not the reality, at least not equally. As she grows more distant from her partner the book becomes two women’s stories, Joanna’s and Alistair’s ex, Alexandra, the wife who left him when she found Joanna and he in bed together. When Alexandra takes their daughter, Chloe, to Australia, it is one of the few times when Alistair is foiled and doesn’t get what he wants, something which gives the reason for the trip even more credence, and a horrible irony.
Although his voice is never directly heard, Alistair Robertson is the one who is pulling the strings of every one else involved for his own gain, and for all the wrong reasons he is one of the most memorable characters of recent times. His final note to Chloe, which uses the same language he has used to seduce and convince both Joanna and Alexandra, is chilling, especially after certain truths have finally been revealed.
What’s perhaps most unsettling about Alistair is how he is routinely forgiven by the women in his life. His mother, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his lover; all of them come to realise that he cheats and lies, often as a matter of routine, but they all make excuses for his behaviour, or at least forgive it, to a greater or lesser degree, and it is only when Joanna decides she can take no more that this pattern is broken in spectacular style.
Often thrillers build tension and then let it ebb and flow. In ‘The Cry’ FitzGerald creates it in the first chapter, and it doesn’t let up until you close the final page. If you’re like me you’ll read it in one sitting as you can’t put it down until you know how things resolve themselves. There are times when you find yourself literally holding your breath as Joanna tries to make sense of what has happened and tries to work out what is going to happen next.
The idea of the genre ‘domestic noir’ is one that has grown in popularity recently, partly due to the success of ‘Gone Girl’, but the fear of something awful happening to family and friends is eternal and ever present, and ‘The Cry’ would make a rather macabre if moving double bill with Doug Johnstone’s equally excellent novel, ‘Gone Again’. But what I kept returning to is Kelman’s belief in the drama of the everyday, because although a tragic event brings matters to a head, all the characters in ‘The Cry’ are involved in lives which are challenging yet in some ways mundane. Helen FitzGerald proves herself an expert in telling stories which deserve to be heard, and which will strike a chilling chord with all readers.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: It’s incredibly difficult for any writer to get their debut novel published, never mind get noticed. As a result there are many books which deserve to be read but get overlooked. Iain Maloney’s First Time Solo came out earlier this year, and if you missed it, then I hope next month’s column will encourage you to search it out.
If you are the sort of person who judges a novel by the quotes they use, then one from Art Blakey and another by Aneurin Bevan should encourage you to read on, but this tale of love, jazz and poetry set against the backdrop of the World War II has the perfect balance of the poignant and the uplifting.
November 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
What can be said about Neil Munro? In a Canadian obituary, it was written:
“Neil Munro – the very name o’ him is grand to hear. A grand name, wi’ something baith braw and hamely in it. A name wi’ a sniff o’ peat reek, the bloom o’ heather, a skirl o’ the pipes, an’ a glint o’ the claymore. A tartaned name, that stirs Scottish blood.”
Blimey! That’s a fair claim for this Scottish writer who is little known, or at least celebrated, today. It’s the sort of praise you could imagine being laid upon Walter Scott, or even written by Scott in one of his more purple patches. But Munro was born almost 100 years after Scott, and was a man of industrial Scotland as much as anything else. Working at one stage in an ironmongers not 200 metres from where I write this, he then became a journalist in Greenock, Glasgow and Falkirk. His knowledge of the Central Belt would feed into some of his fiction, but it is in the past where the best of Neil Munro is to be found.
If you know the name, it is likely because Munro wrote ‘The Tales of Para Handy’, couthy, comic stories set aboard the Clyde Puffer, The Vital Spark. These were adapted for TV in the 1960s with Roddy McMillan as the titular skipper, and again in 1994, this time with Gregor Fisher, and they were hugely successful slices of kailyard Scotland set at sea. Their popularity has overshadowed the rest of Munro’s writing, which is a shame as he is someone it is worth seeking out. He was called, by noted critic and Glasgow minister Lauchlan MacLean Watt, “the greatest Scottish novelist since Sir Walter Scott”. That claim may not be shared by many, but it does give some idea as to how highly he was thought of at the time of his death in 1930.
His last novel, ‘The New Road’, is his best. Set in 1773, which places events 30 years after the Jacobite rebellion and at the time of the Highland Clearances, (two events are pivotal to what unfolds), it is the sort of murder/mystery that Scottish writers have done so well, from the earliest Walter Scott to those who fall under the umbrella of today’s Tartan Noir. The new road of the title refers to the military road which General Wade tore into the Highlands to destroy the Clans in the 1700s, and it is along this road that events unfold. Anyone who has read Scott’s ‘Waverley’ will be familiar with the landscape and themes, but Munro has greater humour and brevity than is to be found in that earlier novel.
Actually, it is not Scott, but Robert Louis Stevenson that ‘The New Road’ most closely resembles, as Scottish history is examined through the modern day ideas of 1914. The central characters of Aeneas Macmaster and Ninian Macgregor Campbell bear more than a close resemblance to Alan Breck Stewart and Davie Balfour from Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’, but the novel it most reminds me of is ‘The Master of Ballantrae’, in that Aeneas and Ninian are really one character divided, as are the brothers Durie in RLS’s book, and between them they represent all sorts of Scottish concerns. It may be old hat to even allude to ‘two’ distinct Scotlands, yet this idea was positively embraced by Scott, Stevenson and Munro respectively, and many others, and just because we may have heard this theory many times since, we shouldn’t dismiss it wholly.
One of the reasons Munro fell out of favour is a by now familiar one. His fiction and themes didn’t fit in with the ideas of that arbiter of Scottish Literature, Hugh MacDiarmid. He saw Munro as in thrall to Scotland’s past and MacDiarmid’s desire for Scottish modernism made any romanticising of Scotland’s past anathema to him. Many critics hung on MacDiarmid’s every word, and although ‘The New Road’ was praised by John Buchan, who called it ‘one of the finest romances of our time’ and Francis Russell Hart, amongst others, Munro’s reputation declined as the 20th century progressed. But, just as his contemporaries JM Barrie and Lewis Grassic Gibbon have been revaluated and rediscovered in recent decades, surely Munro deserves the same. We all deserve a bit of romance in our life.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: I have a love/hate relationship with literary categories. On the one hand, they are very useful on giving people an idea of what to expect from a writer or book, on the other, they don’t allow for much subtlety. If they are to be applied, it’s important to pick them apart to do the writer in question justice.
‘The Cry’, by Helen Fitzgerald, is one such book, ill served by calling it Tartan Noir. For one thing, it is set in Australia, for another you could call it a psychological thriller, a horror or a black comedy. In reality, it is all of these things and much more.