Buddha Da by Anne Donovan

Canongate 2009, 346 p.

This is one from the 100 Best Scottish Books list which I wrote about here. I picked it up from one of my local libraries.

 Buddha Da cover

The book starts with a section narrated by ten-year-old Anne Marie, whose father Jimmy has just turned into a Buddhist. Hence the Buddha Da of the title. But the novel isn’t solely rendered from Anne Marie’s point of view. Her mother Liz and father Jimmy also have sections narrated by their personae. In fact overall the novel is more Liz’s story than either Anne Marie’s or Jimmy’s as the ramifications of Jimmy’s decision sequentially embarrass Anne Marie then alter the marriage and the relationships within the family.

The narration in all three voices is in a modern Glaswegian Scots, which some might find off-putting but expresses emotions and the human condition as well as any other mode. Along the way we are treated to several bons mots. Jimmy muses on his relationship with his brother, “There we are pissed oot wer heids sayin how much we love each other and we cannae dae it when we’re sober.” Anne Marie worries about the tensions the situation has created, “Everybody’s speakin tae me but naebdy’s tellin me anything. Happy faimlies.” Liz says of a woman overheard in the Botanic Gardens, “Confident they voices, they English voices. Mibbae she wasnae English right enough. Loads of times you thought they were English and they turned oot tae be Scottish but went tae private schools,” and she reflects on the central event of the novel, the one that prompts the resolution, “At the time it was the last thing on ma mind. But then whit has yer mind got tae dae wi it?” There is also a sly reference in one of Anne Marie’s sections to the similarities between Scotland and Tibet, “Nae flag on the map. Or languages of wer ain.” Is this a comment by Donovan on the comparative neglect of the voices she has chosen for her story? If so she has remedied that defect admirably. These feel like real people with lives as worth documenting as any others.

The CD Anne Marie makes with her friend Nisha places Buddha Da firmly in time though, just after the turn of the century before online videos became the medium of choice for self-promotion.

Buddha Da’s first few sentences perhaps try too hard and the one-liner at the end is really more suited to a short story than a novel so is it one of the best 100 Scottish books? Well, the themes and emotions it explores are not particular to Scots, the characters’ situations could occur almost anywhere but it is written in that uncompromising urban Scots vernacular, emphasising that the people’s language has expressive power equal to anything else.

Pedant’s corner:- The language Buddha Da is written in pretty much makes any criticism of the grammar otiose as it reflects usage but I still had an aversion to the likes of “ahd of” and “could of” and I’ve always hated the use of “mines” as a possessive form for the first person. Donovan could very well reply that that makes me a literary snob.
There was vist for visit, and I’ve never heard of anyone having a holiday for the Queen’s birthday.

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