To Be Continued by James Robertson

Or, Conversations with a Toad Penguin, 2017, 332 p.

 To Be Continued cover

The Scottish novel is not noted for humour, nor even light-heartedness. Neither can that be attributed to the author of this one, whose previous forays into the realms of Scottish letters have dealt with serious issues – Covenanting times, meetings with the Devil, slavery, the independence question, and the Lockerbie bombing. Yet this can only be described as a comic novel. There’s really not another way to describe a book in which not just one but three characters have conversations with, and a couple of sections are narrated by, a member of the species Bufo bufo – the common toad (though it describes itself as uncommon.)

Douglas Findhorn Elder’s life is drifting. Having taken voluntary redundancy from his job at the Spear newspaper, his relationship with Sonya Strachan foundering, his mother dead, his father Thomas Ythan Elder in a care home, he has moved back into the parental home. On the way to the funeral of a former colleague on his fiftieth birthday on a bus that is stuck in traffic he reflects ruefully on his situation. That evening, stepping out onto a patio – what his father called the sitootery, or in inclement weather the raindaffery, or even the naechancery, but when it’s bitter cold, the skitery – he finds himself having a conversation with a toad; a toad whom they mutually agree to name Mungo Forth Mungo (since the Elder family always gives itself a middle name after a Scottish river,) a toad which gives him a different perspective on life.

The early chapters detail Douglas’s somewhat drab existence and include an awkward encounter with Sonya’s daughter Paula, a commentary by Ollie Buckthorn – still on the Spear’s payroll – on the exquisite embarrassments of the procedure to obtain a sample for the bowel cancer screening test plus the frustrations of a visit to the home where his dementia struck father is now living.

The main plot motors up when Douglas is asked by the Spear’s editor to undertake a series of (fee unspecified) freelance pieces on the Idea of Scotland, to gauge how the nation sits after the Independence referendum. During this encounter Douglas lets us know he hates the word ‘heft.’ “Book reviewers use it to describe tedious literary novels that they feel obliged, tedium notwithstanding, to admire.” The series is to start with an interview with forgotten near centenarian novelist Rosalind Munlochy, who lives in a house called Glentaragar somewhere in the wilds of Argyll.

Both Douglas’s conversations with Mungo (which are numbered) and the extracts from Rosalind Munlochy’s biography which he provides us with are concluded with the words [To be continued] thus giving the novel its title.

The journey to Glentaragar will not be easy. Sonya has refused Douglas’s request to use their car and he will have to travel by public transport. As it turns out he is deposited at a request stop at the apparently deserted Shira Inn and, since it’s quiet, is asked to man the bar by Malcolm the manager while he goes off on a quest of his own. A musician called Stuart Crathes MacCrimmon drops in and starts to drink the place dry, as do various groups of tourists. A woman named Xanthe who seems to know the place well calls in, starts to help and takes a shine to Douglas.

The next day both Xanthe and MacCrimmon have vanished and Douglas makes his way to the Glen Araich Lodge Hotel, near Glentaragar, to find the manager, Ruaraidh MacLagan, is identical to McCrimmon but will not admit it. It is here that a subplot involving the whiskies Glen Gloming and Salmon’s Leap enters the picture.

Yet more confusion awaits Douglas once he has hitch-hiked to Glentaragar and finds the house’s general factotum Corryvreckan is also a double (triple!) for MacCrimmon and MacLagan and moreover that Rosalind Munlochy’s granddaughter Poppy is actually the Xanthe he’d met the day before. In her case the reason is simple, she had wanted to check Douglas out before allowing him to interview her grandmother. The fact that she had checked him out thoroughly does not ameliorate his initial discomfort.

Rosalind, though, is engaging and an obliging interviewee, “‘People wade in it’ (knowledge) ‘now without any sense of direction or any notion of what it is they are wading in,’” but is at cross purposes as she believes Douglas has come to inquire into a family secret relating to Rosalind’s daughter (Poppy’s mother.)

The tanglings of the plot are cleverly worked. Corryvreckan turns out to be an Englishman who had sought a bolthole. Poppy says of him, “‘he went native. It’s not uncommon in the Highlands.’” The whisky sub-plot links in both to Corryvreckan’s present and past and to Douglas’s life in Edinburgh. Unlikely connections are established – in one case re-established. Ends that had not seemed loose are tied up. The novel finishes affirmatively.

Along the way Mungo Forth Mungo has some of the best lines, “If someone tells you that there are already enough stories in the world, they are missing the point. The point is the world is stories,” and has a justified rant on the dispositions of human thought, “‘We, or our ancestors, have been around a hundred times longer than you, a thousand times longer …… You think you know more than we do …. that you are greater than any other living thing. But the toad, the toadstool, the ant, the blackbird, the deer, the daffodil, the jellyfish – you are less than all of these … You know nothing and have nothing and are nothing.’” A demonstration that a novel doesn’t need to have heft to have something worthwhile to communicate.

Pedant’s corner:- sailboat (sailing boat,) staunch (stanch.)

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