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Being Emily by Anne Donovan

Canongate, 2008, 316 p.

I doubt the novel as a form will ever fade away so long as it deals with those perennial biggies love, sex and death. That and the fact that people find stories irresistible. There may only be seven different plots but boy meets girl – with complications ensuing – is usually a winner. Being Emily gives us that proposition in reverse. It is, though, a grounded book, redolent of and true to its milieu. The characters’ speech is rendered in italics, which effectively does away with all that quotation marks and commas gubbins, and the text – not just the dialogue – is written in Glaswegian dialect, with phrases like “from the resty us,” (rest of) “in fronty” (in front of) “thegether,” (together) “mines” (mine,) photies (photos,) used firmly and unapologetically.

Fiona O’Connell has been brought up in Glasgow in a loving Catholic family. She has an older brother, Patrick, and twin younger sisters, Mona and Rona. (The family joke is that if they had been triplets the third would have been named Shona. Even Fiona’s name follows the rhyme.) She has long held a fascination for Emily Brontë, on whom she wishes to write her Sixth Year Studies assessment essay, but also has a talent for art.

Her life changes when her school can not provide all three subjects she wishes to take in Sixth Year and consequently has to attend the non-denominational (her father calls it ‘Proddy’) school. There she meets Jaswinder (Jas) Singh, a more talented artist but one who is destined to join his family’s pharmacy business and so will take Chemistry at University. This relationship gives Donovan the opportunity to kick against the automatic assumptions people make about others. Jaswinder is, for example, a vegan through choice, not for religious reasons. Both he and his brother Amrik – through different motives – upset their now dead father, one by taking up the sitar, the other by cutting his hair.

Fiona’s life is thrown into turmoil when her mother, the bedrock of the family, dies in childbirth along with the child. Here. Now (as Fiona rails angrily,) in the twenty-first century. Her father goes to pieces with Fiona trying to keep things together in the family without the authority to do so. She channels her feelings into her art and, despite the competing allure of Brontë, winning the local section of a nationwide art competition persuades her to go to (Glasgow) Art School. But it is Fiona’s burgeoning relationship with Jas which is the story’s pivot, a deep friendship which is on course to develop into something deeper but has never been consummated.

Then, within two days, it’s over. Fiona asks us rhetorically, But how do you break up with your best friend? then provides her own solution. Answer: You don’t. You betray him.

Foreshadowing is an essential literary technique, but this is not foreshadowing so much as outright telling us what’s about to (or, from Fiona’s point of view, as she’s recollecting all this from a later date, what did) happen. Yet those two lines have undeniable power. Even though Fiona has already told us of her regret at her actions, they come with the force of a punch. And they convey the gravity of her choice – though she is in retrospect hard put to it both to understand and to justify (most of all to herself) how she behaved, beyond the confusion and bodily discomposure she felt at the time. Treachery is of course another literary staple, guilt a powerful emotion.

There is still the major part of the book to go at this point and although Fiona kind of flits through her degree course – though her degree piece is a strain – we are given acute portrayals of her father’s confusion at modern life, Jas’s mother’s kindness, Rona’s fairly abrupt transition into adult responsibilities, Amrik’s preciousness about musical performance, not to mention the almost unnoticed drifting away of her schoolgirl friendships. The characterisations here are sound. The reader feels she/he knows these people.

It would be unkind to suggest that through all this Donovan forgot about the Emily connection but it is only returned to very near the end where it does seem a bit of an afterthought. But in any case the novel doesn’t actually need it; Fiona’s story is sufficient unto itself and well capable of holding the attention on its own.

Like Donovan’s previous novel Buddha Da and her later, absolutely magnificent, Gone Are the Leaves, Being Emily is a very good novel indeed and needs no other prop. And it is not so much about being Emily as being Fiona.

Pedant’s corner:- sometimes “to” is given as “tae” at others it is as usual. “they’d of,” “never of,” “would of” etc (I know this is perhaps true to the characters’ phonetic speech but I hate that use of ‘of’. In any case the way I hear those phrases uttered in real life they sound like ‘they’d uv,’ ‘never uv,’ ‘would uv,’ etc,) “Jas could sense the tiniest molecule of carbon monoxide sighing into the air” (this was in the context of global warming, so, carbon dioxide,) a missing coma before the quote mark at the opening of a piece of direct speech quoted within dialogue, “simmet” (though ‘simmet’ is how it is pronounced the usual spelling of this undergarment is ‘semmit’,) “a couple of month after” (months,) shaughly (is usually spelled shoogly.) “I’d work late at Art School then went hame tae my da’s” (should really be ‘then go hame’,) swopped (swapped,) “that have laid derelict for years” (lain – even in Scottish dialect.)

Bookshelf Travelling For Insane Times

The good lady is taking part in a meme, which originated with Reader in the Wilderness in the USA.

It’s not quite in the spirit of the meme but I thought I would give you a glimpse of some of my bookshelves over the next few weekends. (Monday counts for this.)

So these are the top four shelves of the bookcase where I keep those works of Scottish Fiction I have already read. (Unread books are kept elsewhere.) The bookcase was bought from IKEA and fitted well in our old house which had high ceilings. When we moved to Son of the Rock Acres we wondered where it could go. Not downstairs, not enough clearance. Upstairs though, the ceilings are three inches higher! The removal men were great at manœuvring it into place with so little margin for error. It now sits on the top corridor just outside my study. (You can’t always see the books so clearly, there’s usually more stuff placed in front of them. A few history books are still perched above some in the bottom row.)

Scottish Books 1

Scottish Books 2

Edited to add:- The meme was set up to include recommendations for reading. Well, on that note Lewis Grassic Gibbon is always worth it, most especially Sunset Song in the A Scots Quair trilogy. So too are Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks, Anne Donovan, Margaret Elphinstone, Andrew Crumey, Andrew Greig, James Robertson.

Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan

Canongate, 2014, 361 p.

 Gone Are the Leaves cover

This is another very fine Scottish novel (my second such in a row) but it’s an odd coincidence that both this and Ronald Frame’s The Lantern Bearers should have a boy’s treble singing voice as a significant plot driver.

The main narration duties here are carried out in the first person by Deirdre, a young embroideress in an unspecified Scottish castle overseen by a couple only ever referred to as the Laird and my Lady. Interspersed with Deirdre’s remembrances are third person segments from the viewpoint of the peripatetic priest Father Anthony, and further first person snippets from singing master Signor Carlo and nun Sister Agnes.

The Laird’s daughter, Lady Alicia, is on the marriage market and my Lady has brought back from France, where she has relatives, a suitor with an entourage containing a page, Feilamort, of obscure origin but in possession of a voice like an angel. Feilamort is not the most robust of boys but he and Deirdre make friends and begin to spend some of what spare time they have together playing in the woods.

This being the Middle Ages and the glorification of God a bounden duty, the preservation of His instrument to that end, a pure singing voice, is an active consideration. In particular, Signor Carlo sees great prospects for himself in Rome with Feilamort under his tutelage. Feilamort himself accepts it is probably his best option for a secure future but before the procedure takes place asks Deirdre if he can know her as a man knows a woman. After initial hesitation she consents, and the novel’s path is set.

Deirdre’s secret revealed to Father Anthony, he arranges for her to travel overseas in the company of Sister Agnes. She ends up in an unusual castle belonging to a Lord known as the Master, where resides an artist called Monsieur Alberto (who has echoes of Leonardo da Vinci.) The Master commissions Deirdre to sew an embroidery of a unicorn from one of Monsieur Alberto’s paintings but otherwise why she was brought there remains a mystery to her. The nature of Feilamort’s – and therefore Deirdre’s – connection to the place slowly unravels while in the background lurks the shadowy figure of a Monsieur Garnet.

The Deirdre passages are rendered in a very braid Scots indeed. It was here I had some initial reservations as Donovan is not entirely consistent in applying this. “To”, for example is sometimes given in English and elsewhere appears as “tae”, whereas Deirdre would almost certainly always have used the latter exclusively. Similarly I noticed “afternoon” where “efternoon” or even “efternin” would seem more natural. But I can understand why Donovan made the choices she did. The liberal use of Scottish words – albeit mostly weather related and hence perhaps more readily understandable – might otherwise present too much of a barrier to readers not familiar with written Scots. A (short) glossary appears at the end but by no means covers all the Scots words in the text. They do, however, provide the flavour of the novel which would, I submit, be a much lesser thing if written in standard English. The expressiveness of these Scots words is a major part of the book’s overall impact. They might even be said to heighten the book’s literary qualities.

The mediæval Scottish setting reminded me vaguely of Andrew Greig’s Fair Helen but Gone Are the Leaves is its own thing entirely. Donovan captures superbly the fears and misgivings of the adolescent – going on adult – Deirdre, the suspicions of Signor Carlo and the wisdom of Sister Agnes. In this light her decision to render Father Anthony’s sections in the third person is entirely appropriate.

Even if resolution comes via frankly unlikely means (but justified within the novel’s narrative) and the ending has a very traditional Scottish feel this is an exemplary work – better than Donovan’s earlier novel Buddha Da.

Pedant’s corner:- whisps (wisps,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) Jacques’ (Jacques’s,) Feilmort (x1, elsewhere always Feilamort.)

Reading Scotland 2015

A lot of my Scottish reading this year was prompted by the list of 100 best Scottish Books I discovered in February. Those marked below with an asterisk are in that 100 best list. (In the case of Andrew Greig’s Electric Brae I read it before I was aware of the list and for Robert Louis Stevenson his novella was in the book of his shorter fiction that I read.)

Electric Brae by Andrew Greig*
A Sparrow’s Flight by Margaret Elphinstone
The Guinea Stamp by Annie S Swan
The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark
The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson*
Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks by Christopher Brookmyre
Buddha Da by Anne Donovan*
Flemington by Violet Jacob*
Tales From Angus by Violet Jacob
Annals of the Parish by John Galt
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber
Change and Decay in All Around I See by Allan Massie
The Hangman’s Song by James Oswald
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
The Hope That Kills Us Edited by Adrian Searle
Other stories and other stories by Ali Smith
Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi*
The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison*
No Mean City by H McArthur and H Kingsley Long*
Shorter Scottish Fiction by Robert Louis Stevenson*
The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett*
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
Fair Helen by Andrew Greig
The Dear, Green Place by Archie Hind*
Fur Sadie by Archie Hind
Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown*
Stepping Out by Cynthia Rogerson
Open the Door! by Catherine Carswell*
The Silver Darlings by Neil M Gunn*
Scotia Nova edited by Alistair Findlay and Tessa Ransford
After the Dance: selected short stories of Iain Crichton Smith
John Macnab by John Buchan
Another Time, Another Place by Jessie Kesson
Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith*
The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan*
Poems Iain Banks Ken MacLeod
Mistaken by Annie S Swan
Me and Ma Gal by Des Dillon*
Tea with the Taliban: poems by Owen Gallagher
A Choosing by Liz Lochhead
The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins*
Born Free by Laura Hird*
the first person and other stories by Ali Smith

That makes 42 books in all (plus 2 if the Violet Jacob and Archie Hind count double.) None were non-fiction, 3 were poetry, 2 SF/Fantasy, 19 + (4x½ + 3 doublers) by men, 13 + (3 doublers and 1 triple) by women, 2 had various authors/contributors.

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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