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The Well at the World’s End by Neil M Gunn

Polygon, 2008, 333 p. First published 1951.

 The Well at the World’s End cover

The book starts off at a well, which appears to be dry but whose water is so transparent it is invisible. This strange encounter reminds Peter Munro and his wife Fand of an old Gaelic legend of the well in the land beyond ours, the Land of Youth. Munro sets off on a quest to see if anything remains of this well at the world’s end, to go through the human boundary (which may be an illusion.)

The novel treats of two of the triumvirate of literature’s perennial concerns – love and death, but not the third, sex – and in part reads like a series of short stories bound together as a travelogue. On his journey Munro sees The Wild Man, meets a shepherd, hears of a practical joke played out in a supposedly haunted house, is knocked out by illicit whisky distillers, witnesses a woman reinvigorating her marriage in a traditional way, facilitates young love and encounters rivalries (and a reconciliation) in neighbouring seaside towns.

While the book skirts round fantasy territory, things appearing out of mists etc, the overall treatment is realistic. The denouement brings the whole round in a circle and reintroduces fantasy overtones, inviting the reader to identify Munro with the Wild Man he glimpsed earlier but in one sense wriggles out of the conclusion which that entails.

Memorable phrases included, “A man should get away from everything occasionally, even from his wife,” “There are two things the Gael likes naked and one of them is whisky,” “We don’t drink alcohol for its reality. We drink it for the effect it creates, the illusion it engenders,” “A nod’s as good as a blink when there’s a blind salmon on the back doorstep,” and the reflection, “Every village in the Highlands, every crofting area to the farthest Western Isle, had kin in the ends of the earth, and long before world wars were the fashion.”

The text employs those impeccably Scottish words kist (spelled as cist,) widdershins and deisil (sunwards) and has Munro muse on the fact that alcohol is known as water of life in several languages, uisgebeatha, eau de vie, aqua vitae, but the Sasunnach (not having a water of life of his own) struggled to pronounce uisge and so deemed it whisky. At one point Gunn touches on the phenomenon of dual personality which has echoed through Scottish literature down the years since the Act of Union when he has Munro reflect, “as though in oneself were two quite different men, who were yet the same man.” Even without these indicators the book could not be mistaken for anything other than emblematically Scottish, though.

I confess I had to look up the phrase “agenbite of inwit,” which I had never seen before.

Pedant’s corner:- Sasunnach is an unusual spelling. “Shore up” was used in the sense of “rise up.” There was a barely brew (barley,) an unpredictible, doppleganger, genuiness and a failure of subject to verb agreement in “his knees, his whole body, was trembling finely.”

Interzone 251, Mar–Apr 2014

Interzone 251 cover

Ghost Story by John Grant1
An interesting take on the ghost – or possibly parallel worlds – story. Nick is happily married to Dverna when he receives a phone call from the daughter of family friends who says she is pregnant and he’s the father. Except both Dverna and he know he can’t be.

Ashes by Karl Bunker2
In a world where AIs have allowed all sorts of useful developments but also the technology that drove the Dust Wars the very few humans who remain live in scattered enclaves without contact for fear they’ll kill each other. The AIs are prone to winking out of existence. Narrator Neil, accompanied by an AI, sets out to bury the ashes of a former girlfriend.

Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa3
Another post-apocalypse tale. An old man inhabits a wrecked room. He is frightened of the mummers who roam outside. One day a surgeon knocks on the door.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer4
Set on a mining asteroid run by a woman-hating theocracy which holds its workers in bondage till they pay off their debts and/or fines for misbehaviour. Fari is unique, a female miner – but she is the best – and has her own reasons for paying back credits. Things come to a head when a new Rep takes over.

A Doll is not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser5
Yopu, a robot dumpling seller, is kidnapped by activists for non-human rights (one of whom is a dogboy.) Yopu is given a bigger vocabulary and a mission.

This is How You Die by Gareth L Powell6
A very short story narrated in the second person about the effects of, and a personal response to, a devastating flu-like pandemic.

Pedant’s corner:
1 It’s androgynous not genous and any Scot I know uses either bairns or weans to describe children, but not both.
2 The two info dumping sections are intrusive and the story is written in USian.
3 Had been “sawed” apart, fit for fitted, the surgeon made no “more” to interfere (misprint for move.)
4 Written in USian.
5 Written in USian plus two instances of failure of agreement between subject and verb, epicenter, and a “lay” for lie.
6 “wet orange leaves” is ambiguous. Well, I had to read it twice to get Powell’s meaning.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay

Picador, 1998, 280 p.

Kay is mainly a poet but has published three novels, of which this was the second.

Trumpet cover

Trumpet starts in the aftermath of the death of famous jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. His wife, Millicent, has travelled to Torr, a remote Scottish location, to escape press attention following the revelation of the couple’s secret. The story is told from various viewpoints starting with Millicent’s memories of their relationship. We are with the doctor who examines the body, see their adopted son Colman’s reaction to the news, the sensitive registrar’s concern for the proprieties, the indecision of the funeral director who prepares the corpse, the glee of the journalist, Sophie Stones, who interviews Colman for a projected book, are given a feel for Joss’s engrossment in the music, shown the memories of Moody’s drummer who will not hear a word said against him, of the cleaner who “did” for the Moodys, and finally meet Joss’s elderly mother, whose ongoing existence he had kept from his family.

As the book goes on we return intermittently to Millicent’s, Colman’s and Sophie’s viewpoints, charting Colman’s journey from initial disbelief to a gradual coming to terms with his upbringing.

There are several aperçus (not that you have to agree with all of them,) “Sex is always better if you argue before,” “Loss isn’t an absence after all. It is a presence,” “When the love of your life dies, the problem is not that some part of you dies too, which it does, but that some part of you is still alive,” and lots of Scotticisms to savour; tattie scones, square sausage, Irn Bru (as irn bru), shortbread, black bun, chapping the door and the wonderful to see in a literary context, “His brain is mince.” (Mince = rubbish or useless.)

I confess not to have read any of Kay’s poetry but her ability as a novelist is without question.

Pedant’s corner:
In Millicent’s narratives – windowscreen for windscreen, reeking havoc, grizzly for grisly, Greyfriars bobby (Bobby,) asterix for asterisk – but these may be the character’s spelling choices. What may be a continuity error, “I’ve never locked the door and I’m not starting now,” where a few pages before on arrival at Torr she had locked the door can be attributed to Millie’s disorientation.
Similarly in Colman’s viewpoint we had mowed for mown, regigged for rejigged and Barr’s irn bru. It’s a proper noun, so Irn Bru.
“There has been some sympathetic murmurings.” (have) “Something about the eyes that draw you.” The subject of the verb here is “something” not “eyes.” That would be something draws you, then.
The registrar office should have been a register one – and capitalised – and were there branches of Menzies in London railway stations back in the day?
Twice we had ass for arse and twice asshole for arsehole and there was the strange construction, “She sat put with the girl.”

Camera Obscura by Lavie Tidhar

Angry Robot, 2011, 379 p.

 Camera Obscura cover

Camera Obscura is the second of Tidhar’s tales of The Bookman Histories. Whether it is desirable I can’t say as I’ve not read the previous volume but familiarity with the first is not necessary as this book did stand alone. Yet how to classify this blend of steampunk, altered history, murder mystery and SF? Best not to, perhaps. Let it all wash over you in an overwhelming wave.

Milady de Winter, once Cleopatra, The Ferocious Dahomey Amazon in Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth, sometime wife of a late English Lord, now works for the Quiet Council, a group of machines which rules in Paris. Across the channel Queen Victoria is on the throne – but she is a lizard, one of the set of creatures awakened by Amerigo Vespucci when he ventured over the Atlantic to Caliban’s island. As a result, in this universe inhabitants of the New World are referred to as Vespuccians.

As the above perhaps indicates, various homages are made in the course of this tale. We encounter Viktor, a scientist who experiments on dead bodies, Edison players which operate using perforated discs, a representative of the Empire of Chung Kuo, Mycroft Holmes (an agent for British intelligence,) Citizen Sade – who likes to inflict pain, Sitting Bull, Buffalo Bill; the list is almost endless. We hear, too, of a man named Moreau, off to carry on his work on a Pacific island. There was even the sentence, “A man came through the door with a gun,” but that was inserted only to subvert the cliché it implies. Earlier it had reminded me the film of The Maltese Falcon. At a ball Viktor utters a line that reads as if it could have come out of Treasure Island. “The dead don’t dance, and they seldom drink,” begs to be followed with, “Yo, ho, ho, and a bottle of rum.”

The first section of the book is entitled Murder in the Rue Morgue and at this point it looks as if we are going to be reading a steampunk (secret) police procedural. The starting point is misleading though, as the murder story morphs into a different kind of tale. There is the sense that Tidhar is packing too many allusions and references into his novel, at the expense of a tighter story. Not that the journey isn’t enjoyable just that the focus becomes diffuse, though pointers to the resolution are distributed throughout.

It all builds to a climax set four years after the Paris Exposition Universelle, at The World’s Vespuccian Exposition in Chicago – Ferris Wheel and all. Compare The World’s Columbian Exposition (a World’s Fair whose buildings became known as The White City) of which there are some pictures here.

While Tidhar can write there really is too much going on here for the characters to grow and develop – but that is, I’m sure, deliberate. Read it for the adventure story, for the references and allusions. For its brio.

Pedant’s corner: Except for the one occasion where automata appeared the word automatons is used as a plural throughout the book. Milady at one point has “another death on her hand.” (Hand, singular. This was before she lost one of the relevant appendages and it was replaced with a Gatling gun.) “Apart for them” was used for “apart from them,” and in “as if she and the jade have come to some sort of understanding” (have should be had) – plus a “sank” for sunk.

Hotel World by Ali Smith

Penguin, 2002, 238 p.

 Hotel World cover

I picked this up in a local library as I hadn’t read it. The author was born in Inverness and so counts for the Read Scotland Challenge; but see below.

Hotel World is not so much a novel as six novellas linked by the accidental death of Sara Wilby, a young woman worker in a hotel. She packed herself into the dumb waiter and its cables broke, plunging her to her death. The novellas each have titles relating to a verb tense; past, present historic, future conditional, perfect, future in the past, present. The first is narrated by the dead woman (after the death,) the second from the viewpoint of Else, a woman begging on the streets outside the hotel where the accident took place, the third is Lise’s, one of the hotel’s receptionists, whose mother is composing a poem cycle called ‘Hotel World,’ the fourth tells of the strange evening esperienced by Penny, a later female guest, the fifth is an unpunctuated stream of consciousness of Clare, the dead girl’s sister, the paragraphs of which are connected by and – with the single exception of an I – all start with &, the sixth is an overview of what various minor characters observed earlier are doing in the present moment.

As in all of Smith’s novels which I have so far read the text’s right hand margin isn’t justified. This didn’t, though, seem so distracting in this volume.

The only hints of Scottishness here are the use of the word skirl, one mention each of the inscription on the rim of pound coins of the motto “nemo me impune lacessit” which was that of the Scottish monarchy (English pound coins have “Decus et tutamen” there,) of the “run-rig system of farming in Scottish History III,” and a town in the misty cold-bound Highlands. This is more than in subsequent Smith novels, though.

Several times Smith uses the archaic sounding phrase “back and fore,” where “back and forth” is perhaps more heard, we had pigmy instead of pygmy and foetid spelt in the USian manner as fetid.

I’m really not sure what to make of Smith. She can clearly write well, with insights into the human condition, but is it too much to ask for a plot?

Jack Glass by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2012, 373 p.

 Jack Glass cover

Well, this is a tricksy one. The prologue informs us we are about to read about three murders, a prison story, a regular (regular? I think Roberts meant traditional rather than occurring at intervals) whodunnit and a locked room mystery – or perhaps each is all three at once – and tells us who committed them, yet still promises surprises. The coda provides a rationale (in as much as any fiction can) for the fact that we’re reading this at all. All three stories are set in a Solar System run under the strict Lex Ulanova; a set of laws instituted by the ruling Ulanovs in the wake of the Merchant Wars.

The first section, titled In the Box, has seven criminals interned in an asteroid, with limited means and apparatus, eating only ghunk they can grow themselves from the surrounding rock and a pitiful light source; forced to work out their term of eleven years, effectively mining it for the Gongsi corporation which has the contract for their imprisonment. It’s also about economics; the decreasing value of humans as a resource. The tensions are neatly delineated as the story slowly morphs from a wide overview to the viewpoint of Jac, who has urgent reasons to escape his confinement.

From prison to the overclass. The second story, The FTL Murders, concerns Diana and Eva, heirs apparent to the Argent MOHfamily, second in importance to the Ulanovs. Eva, older by a few years, is on her sixth Ph D, investigating the phenomenon of Champagne Supernovæ – a name which Roberts endows with bitter irony with the connections he makes. Diana’s hobby is solving murder mysteries, which she sets to in real life when one of their servants is killed soon after they descend to Earth from their normal space habitat. This gives Roberts the chance to reference various fictional detectives but is mere background to his ongoing story arc, where even the idea of a faster than light technology is enough to threaten the Ulanovs.

The third instalment, The Impossible Gun, takes us briefly into the Sump, the agglomeration of shanty globes scattered across the Solar System where the Sumpolloi live lives of brute insensitivity again eating mainly ghunk, before it settles on a very definitely locked–room mystery. Jack Glass is on the verge of being taken into custody when Bar-le-duc, the detective chasing him, is killed in sudden inexplicable fashion. No spoiler here, or if there is it is Roberts’s, as the chapter title for this scene is The End of Bar-le-duc. The death, though, does blow a hole in the logic of Glass’s later fixation with the RACdroid which witnessed his immediately prior agreement to be being arrested.

There is one neat apercu, “Death is another name for doubt. Death is what inflects the immoral certainty of the universe’s processes with uncertainty,” and an interesting comparison, “The median point between the mass of a proton and the mass of the entire universe is the mass of the average human female.” We are also told of a torture technique called vacuumboarding. For goodness sake don’t give the buggers ideas!

The structures of the second and third stories are awkward, too much playing of fictional games for the sake of it, though Roberts does show the maturation of Diana, as her life of privilege is blown apart and she has to grow up fast, very well. Whether the overall novel lives up to the aspirations set out for it in the prologue or in Roberts’s apparent intention to write a novel which merged Golden Age SF with Golden Age detective fiction is doubtful.

In the acknowledgements Roberts mentions Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Doroth L Sayers and Michael Innes as influences (via his mother to whom the book is dedicated.) The essence of the traditional detective story is cosiness. Jack Glass is far from cosy, however.

I’m at a loss as to why this won the BSFA Award for best novel of 2012. To my mind there were better books on the short list.

Pedant’s corner: Span count 2, Roberts uses schute where chute would be perfectly adequate and we had “let along” for “let alone” plus the sentence, “Sunlight epilected between trees.” I can’t find epilected in any dictionary.

Interzone 250, Jan–Feb 2014.

TTA Press

Interzone 250 cover

Interzone 253 plopped onto my doormat two weeks or so ago (complete with my review of Koko Takes a Holiday by Kieran Shea) so I thought I’d better get round to catching up with earlier issues starting with the commendable landmark number 250. Oddly the fiction in this issue seemed nearly all to be written in USian.

The Damaged by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
Though the author calls them robots, PlayMatez are androids, constructed from bioengineered human muscle and a patented silicone/skin blend. Our narrator is a woman who works for the manufacturer, placing wires in the bodies. She is interested in the 1% of PlayMatez who are damaged, and why that is so. So far, so atmospheric. The USian, though, I found jarring and, technically, the shift in tense of the narration in the final paragraph compared to the first makes the story incoherent. Oh, and blood tastes of iron, not copper.

Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place by David Tallerman
A man in a bickering relationship encounters strangers passing through the town. One of them tells him the world he is living in is a back-up. This story is accompanied by a great illustration of an Art Deco Diner.

The Labyrinth of Thorns by C Allegra Hawksmoor
Told in a rather distancing second person singular – a hard trick to pull off; and I’m not sure Hawksmoor does, quite – and set in a city parts of which extend out over the Atlantic, the narrator, you, has been infected with a memory by the Collective to see if you can be trusted.
Smoke doesn’t “melt” into air – even figuratively – and off of is a solecism at the best of times but it certainly ought not to be rendered as of off.

Beneath the Willow Branches by Caroline M Joachim
Takeshi is a surgeon. The story starts with him retrieving his wife’s memory unit (somewhere out of time, along its z-axis) from its attachment to her brain. She has become lost in time, looping through the same two weeks. He goes back himself to try to save her.
We’ll pass over different than as it is US usage but the text included hope for finding instead of hope of finding. And lay(ing) down for lie (lying) down – twice. Grrr. But lay down was used correctly as a past tense.

Predvestniki by Greg Kurzawa
A man accompanying his wife on her work-related trip to Moscow sees strange towers appearing in the skyline – with even stranger creatures inside them.
Miniscule (sigh) but the grammatically correct though contortedly awkward, “And whom with?”

Lilacs and Daffodils by Rebecca Campbell
A story about memory, knowledge – or the lack of it – and loss. Except that it references the Quatermass serials I’m struggling to see the fantasy or SF content, though.

Wake up, Phil by Georgina Bruce
Laura Harrison is a low-level worker for Serberus, which is in mortal competition with Callitrix, both of whose armies fight against each other in the colonies elsewhere in the Solar System. Except she also lives with Martin in the late sixties and their neighbour is Phil; writer Phil, Sci-Fi Phil. Realities overlap and entwine in this totalitarian nightmare which can also be read as an homage to one of SF’s greats.

Grunts! by Mary Gentle: a fantasy with attitude

Corgi, 1993, 480 p.

Grunts! cover

This is a kind of mash-up fantasy/SF cross-breed featuring dragons, trolls, orcs, Undead, kobolds, Men (male Men and female Men,) dwarves, elves and halflings, Lords of Light and Dark, taverns, whores, thieves, aristocrats and of course magic, but also Raybans, M16s, AK47s, Huey helicopters, APCs and T54 Battle Tanks. Oh, and space travelling Hive-Mind Bugs who grow weapons not only from their own bodies but also spaceships from sea serpents. And for a final flourish, portals between worlds.

The fun starts after the Last Battle between Good and Evil, when the defeated Dark Lord’s loyal orcs are looking for something to do, come across a hoard of hi-tech weapons and transform themselves into a force to be reckoned with; marines in a word.

Well, I say fun, but it takes a precious long time for Grunts to distinguish itself sufficiently from any other militaristically inclined, mayhem-scarred, blood-soaked SF or mediævally tinged fantasy to make the reading not a chore. It does so eventually – for me, about two thirds of the way through – and is larded with a fair number of good jokes, some elaborately set up, which lighten things a bit, the journalist named Perdita Del Verro being a case in point.

Despite its inherent absurdity Gentle does make it all work after a fashion and clearly she had fun in the writing (it is far removed from her usual serious style) but it goes on too long and I question its utility.

Grunts is meant to be light-hearted and a swipe at the mind-set that glories in war and weaponry but like one of its antecedents, Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (an altered world fantasy supposedly written by an Adolf Hitler who never became a successful German politician,) has to indulge in the same attitudes as it is satirising. I doubt anyone who enjoys the source material will have his – or her – mind changed by reading something like this, no matter how much fun it has poked at it.

The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani

Dedalus, 2012, 166 p. Translated from the Italian L’ultimo dei vostiachi by Judith Landry.

 The Last of the Vostyachs cover

Marani wrote one of the best novels I read last year – any year – New Finnish Grammar. His interest in Finland and its language is again in evidence here. In many ways this novel is the one which the title of New Finnish Grammar promised it would be. It may in fact be unique in having a plot which depends on comparative philology for its motor.

The titular last of the Vostyachs is Ivan, survivor of a gulag in which, twenty years before, his father was killed trying to escape. For all those years, until the guards quit due to lack of pay and left the gates open for the inmates to wander off, Ivan did not speak. He is a misfit in the locality, communes with animals and believes the wolves are other Vostyachs who changed form to evade the world and cannot get back. Olga, a Russian linguist studying the Samoyedic languages thereabouts is asked to help understand what he says. She recognises his speech as Vostyach, the long thought extinct oldest language of the Proto-Uralic family, a kind of linguistic missing link between Eskimo-Aleut and Finno-Ugric.

Trusting to his scientific curiosity, she writes to tell Professor Jarmo Aurtova, organiser of an imminent Finno-Ugric conference in Helsinki, of her discovery, making great play of Ivan’s velar fricatives and retroflex palatals, his use of the fricative lateral and labiovelar appendix. (Somewhat improbably, given the time scale involved, she suggests to Aurtova, “Perhaps your ancestors included some Sioux chief who fought at Little Big Horn!”) She tells him Ivan has problems with the modern world, does not like aeroplanes in particular, so while she attends a meeting in St Petersburg she will despatch him by train to Helsinki, and asks Aurtova to meet him at the station.

Aurtova has a portrait of Finnish wartime leader Marshal Mannerheim on his wall and thinks Finland and Finnish the pinnacle of human development, that Finns were the first Europeans, connected to neither Mongols nor Eskimos. As a result he does not take kindly to the prospect of a living rebuke to his beliefs. The scene is set for a tragedy, played out in the coldest night in Helsinki for fifty years and involving the release of animals from Helsinki zoo.

This may seem forbidding but the novel flows extremely smoothly and, despite the instances of linguistic vocabulary, is very easy to read. Marani creates compelling characters, can structure and tell a story and the translation (with a couple of exceptions*) serves him very well.

Marani has Olga express the preciousness of a language. During their encounter within the book she tells Aurtova that Vostyach has a word, powakaluta, for “something grey glimpsed vaguely running through the snow,” a word which will vanish if Vostyach does – though the thing it describes will not. And that disappearance would be terrible. She also reminds him that Finnish doesn’t have a future tense. (Something which is apparently common. English hasn’t, but can utilise an auxiliary verb to enable one.)

If I have any criticisms it is that the book may be romanticising slightly both Ivan’s relationship with nature and that of native North Americans and that Aurtova’s actions are perhaps a little unbelievable.

The Last of the Vostyachs was a delight to read just the same.

*The issues with the translation were firstly that ice hockey isn’t played on a pitch and its scoring system does not have points, “a few points short of victory,” plus the sentence, “One of the six thousand languages still spoken on this earth die out every two weeks.” Dies, surely? In a book dealing with philology, it’s perhaps as well to nail down the grammar. And that “ancestors” isn’t the correct word; “many times removed cousin” is nearer the mark.

Gillespie by J MacDougall Hay

Canongate, 1983, 450 p.

Gillespie cover

This novel was first published in 1914 – not a good time to make a debut – and was all but forgotten for the next fifty or so years. When it was reprinted in 1979 it was hailed in some quarters as if it was some sort of lost classic, compared to The House with the Green Shutters, with which it has some thematic similarities. Alasdair Gray describes Gillespie as having “the worst first chapter that ever introduced a novel worth reading.” The chapter is indeed overwrought, and overwritten, but lasts less than two pages.

The book’s subject, Gillespie Strang, is born under a bad sign. Literally. In an inn whose emblem is a dagger striking down. His mother fears all the male Strangs are doomed. This premonition haunts the book but not Gillespie himself. He is the type of man who might be described as a bad lot. On the make, sly and avaricious, tight with his money, he starts off trapping rabbits on others’ land, swiftly moves on and up, proposes to a local girl to cement a business deal with her father – a deal which condemns a neighbour to penurious widowhood – grows to be a power in the town, the fishing village Brieston, based on Hay’s boyhood home, Tarbert, on Loch Fyne. Structured over four books the novel describes Gillespie’s rise and rise through his and his family’s eyes and those of some of his neighbours. Herring fishing, its ups and downs, is a large presence in the early books; weather, storms and drought, a counterpoint to the tale. All are grist to Gillespie’s acquisitive mill.

Gillespie is a very Scottish novel and has that Calvinist intertwining of the religious with the everyday that pervades Scottish literature and even now, despite the decline in religious observance and belief, affects the Scottish character. Predestination hangs over Gillespie Strang like the striking dagger above the inn. Hay was a Church of Scotland minister, so this flavouring is unsurprising. A key phrase is the Biblical quote, “God is not mocked,” that the widowed Mrs Galbraith pins to her door after her eviction due to Gillespie’s dealings with his future father-in-law. It isn’t perhaps a book you would recommend as an introduction to Scottish writing, it is of its time – or perhaps earlier – and its casual references to “the Jew” who pawns items for the locals jar nowadays. And the overwriting too present in chapter one also plagues the book. There is a glossary at the back but not all the Scots expressions used in the novel can be found there. Yet let it wash over you; in most cases the sense will come through.

The viewpoint characters are complex and individual. One of them claims Scottish exceptionalism, “We are the land that barred out the Romans; the land that has pride without insolence; courage without audacity; blood with condescension.” While Mrs Galbraith reflects on the state of women, “They compromised themselves, not out of vice, but simply to please men, who take advantage,” “A woman will sacrifice everything, even life itself, which often is a slow martyrdom, to satisfy the claims of her family,” she herself plans to degrade Gillespie’s wife as a means to repay him the wrongs he has done her.

In an introduction (which, like most such, should not be read till after the book itself) Bob Tait and Isobel Murray say, “The English novel characteristically limits itself to issues more domestic than the Scots.” The strength of the English novel, “lies in analysis of individual, family or group relationships, of individual psychology, or in forms of novels of manners. Gillespie like other Scots novels, has a wider scope. To find similar scope and ambition we have to go to the Russian or American novel where matters political, social, philosophical and metaphysical are more commonly treated.” They explicitly compare it to Moby Dick in its “relentless questioning of the universe and the source and nature of evil.”

To modern tastes Gillespie as a novel might appear overcooked. Its roots lie in Victorian literature; there are reminders of Thomas Hardy in its grimmer scenes, of Dickens in its length and list of characters. It describes a rural/remote Scotland on the cusp of the modern age – a Scotland that has long gone – but reminds us that human nature is unchanging.

Alasdair Gray’s summation of Gillespie is that it is “good, but not throughout.” I’d go along with that.

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