When They Lay Bare by Andrew Greig

faber and faber, 1999, 326 p.

When They Lay Bare cover

So much enduring literature is about love, sex and death. Greig is good on all three, especially love and its tragedies. In When They Lay Bare David Elliott comes to the family home to show off to his father, Simon, his intended. Meanwhile a strange woman has moved into a cottage on the estate. In David’s childhood Simon had had an affair with Jinny Lauder – for whose death he had been tried for murder, and found not proven. The shadow of those events lies over the book, as, since it is set in those same debatable lands Greig would return to in Fair Helen (but here we are in the twentieth century,) does the history of the borders. Border Ballads are frequently quoted and the book’s epigram is an extract from The Twa Corbies. Throughout Greig does not separate off direct speech by quotation marks but this is never a problem to decipher.

The novel has a central conceit wherein the story is foreshadowed by the descriptions of illustrations on a set of eight plates belonging to the woman in the cottage who at first gives her name as Mary Allan but then says she is Jinny’s daughter, Marnie. The eight sections into which the novel is divided are designated as Plate 1, Plate 2 etc – though 4 and 5 are titled Lover’s Plates (Rose and Red respectively.) These descriptions are rendered in italics. The rest of the narration is carried from the viewpoints of David, Marnie, Simon (from whom we learn the details of his doomed affair with Jinny, a grand passion indeed) and his factotum Tat, a voyeur in his youth whose evidence was crucial to the verdict and who leveraged his knowledge into gaining his position on the Elliott estate. Tat’s narration is littered with Scots words and phrases, as is Simon’s but to a much lesser extent.

Marnie is one of those women whom Greig draws so well. She often alludes to Spook, her word for manifestations of sixth sense, a phenomenon not at odds with Borders history (though in that regard the appearance of Jinny to Tat at the novel’s crux was perhaps a step too far.) Important, too, is a precarious bridge over the Liddie Burn, the scene of one of those Border tales from times past.

Marnie is the heart of the book, the driving force of its motor, the hinge around which the other characters revolve – though Jinny’s actions and her motivations for them are almost as influential – but the most Greigian of sentiments is voiced by David, “Sin and sex make us glow like coals in the dark. That’s why we do it. To burn.” One of the reasons we read novels is to experience that burn, if only at second hand.

Pedant’s corner:- Quite why the title is all in lower case on the cover is beyond me. It isn’t on the title page. Otherwise: “the prosecution were” (was,) “only a name and a brief tale remains” (remain; in an extract from a piece about border legends,) usually before a piece of dialogue or unspoken thought there is some sort of punctuation. In one instance it was missing, smoothes (smooths.) “That is the cause of the love he feel for his companions” (feels,) “‘he’d had to have grovelled’” (OK it was in dialogue but, “he’d have to have grovelled”,) imposter (impostor.)

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply

free hit counter script