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The End of an Old Song by J D Scott

A Romance. Canongate Classics, 1990, 214 p, plus iv p Introduction by Christopher Harvie. First published in 1954.

Things lost. The times they have achanged. It is not for nothing that the lament is the signature example of bagpipe music. Scottish authors have always chronicled disappearance. It’s there in this book’s title and its epigraph – the source of that title – is of course the quote from Lord Chancellor Seafield on the dissolving of the Scottish Parliament in 1707 after the Treaty of Union was signed, “There is the end of an auld sang.” Scots have been struggling with a sense of absence, of incompleteness, ever since.

But there are wider literary echoes here too. This review ought perhaps to have begun with the words, “Last night I dreamed I was at Kingisbyres again,” Kingisbyres being the name of the “big house” where narrator Patrick Shaw had his formative experiences. Indeed, the book could also have been titled “Kingisbyres Revisited”.

Yet this exercise in Scottish nostalgia, displaying the typical Scottish writer’s flair for landscape description, is narrated by one Patrick Shaw who tells us he deliberately cultivated English snobbishness. Indeed, the novel reads as being written with an English sensibility, and people are always described as Scotch, not Scottish. As a result, the Scotticisms, when they occur – “‘Away, man,’” – do so with increased force. Despite his leanings towards Englishness Patrick intuits “the essence of the past of Scotland, its dark, fated, cruel quality and the contrasting strain that ran through it of lightness and grace and gaiety ….. something powerfully charged with love and hate, pride and violence, which, in given circumstances, it might discharge in some tremendous flash of lightning.”

In the 1930s Patrick was a pupil at the nearby fee-paying but far from top drawer school, Nethervale, (his alcoholic father reduced to teaching there) and was invited to Kingisbyres by his friend Alastair Kerr, himself brought up by an aunt in the village and who, local rumour had it, was the natural son of the house’s owner, Captain Keith, who paid for him to attend the school. In Kingisbyres a room once graced by Bonnie Prince Charlie is kept perpetually ready for “the King over the water” to return. One summer, Captain Keith, no longer able to afford the upkeep, lets Kingisbyres to the nouveau riche Harveys (the money was made in biscuits) and Patrick was immediately struck by their daughter Catherine, a presence who is to flicker in and out of Patrick’s and Alastair’s lives for the remainder of the book. Catherine is used to having her own way and even as a young adult knows how to deploy her charms to get it. The establishment of the three’s irregular relationship takes up more than half the novel before the focus shifts to the book’s narrative present after the Second World War.

Captain Keith, like many of the landed gentry, has some very right-wing views and Alastair frequently indulges in casually pejorative mentions of Jews – sometimes not so casually, even after the war. He also has some acerbic comments to make on his countrymen’s attitudes, “being stuck-up is a crime in Scotland. That’s why everybody who makes money leaves it in the end. What’s the good of making money if you can’t be stuck-up?” and the cultural cringe, “like the good wee Scotty I am, I’ve been conditioned to feel that success is genuine only when it’s been registered in London.” He cites those objects of aspiration, “‘That old Kentish manor house,’” along with an English rose for its mistress, two children and a picture in the Tatler but after the war, in its austere aftermath, such longing is obsolete, “‘Now we have to give it up for an apartment on Fifth Avenue.’” When he says, “‘God save us from the romantic outlook,’” Patrick asks him, “‘It’s goodbye to the English dream?’” Alastair replies, “‘Yes,’” and Patrick says ironically, “‘You might call it the end of an old song.’”

The characters in The End of an Old Song are well-drawn, Catherine’s youthful carelessness and flightiness apparent from Patrick’s first encounter with her, Alastair always a hard, uncompromising presence (though Mrs Harvey is a type; a recognisable and all too familiar type, but still a type.) The novel speaks both of its time and to timeless Scottish concerns.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction; a missing end quote mark from an illustrative passage. Otherwise; gulley (gully,) Agnes’ (Agnes’s,) “thee fingers of whisky” (three fingers,) “Mrs Mathers’ voice” (Mathers’s,) “Bonny Prince Charlie” (usually spelled Bonnie, as it is on the next page and elsewhere in the book,) “‘If you boys arenie’ to be working’” (usually spelled arenae – and there’s no need for the apostrophe.) “After Dunkirk time I didn’t see Alastair …. for nearly two years … I went abroad … and until early 1943 I was in the middle East” (Dunkirk was in 1940, 1943 is 3 years later, not 2,) glaiket (usually spelled glaikit, is said to mean wandering in one’s mind; I have always understood it as meaning gormless, or slightly dim.)

Scabby Queen by Kirstin Innes

4th Estate, 2020, 395 p.

Like the best murder mysteries, we start with a body. But this isn’t a crime story. (Not in the conventional sense anyway – and the crimes it touches on are, or were, not usually considered as such.) It is, instead, a mosaic of a life, that of Cliodhna Jean Campbell (known as Clio,) who in January 2018 has committed suicide at her friend Ruth’s house in Kilbarchan, leaving no note in the house, and left Ruth to find her body. It is a novel about its times, our times, political commitment and hope.

Except we don’t actually start with the body. First there is a newspaper article from June 1990, a profile of Clio as her first album is about to be released following her successful but unconventional appearance on Top of the Pops the previous March, where she pointedly refused to mime while promoting her anti-Poll Tax single ‘Rise Up’ and ‘provocatively’ revealed an anti-poll tax T-shirt. Newspaper extracts like these appear intermittently between chapters (the next is a heartfelt but subsequently misconstrued obituary) and chart her swift rise, slower fall and occasional re-emergence to the public eye. One of these is a particularly barbed review of her album of Burns songs, The Northern Lass by a reviewer totally unsympathetic to its subject matter. The meat of the novel however, is in the unfolding of Clio’s life revealed, in non-linear order, by chapters dealing with incidents or stages in her life.

Astutely on the author’s part, we never see events from Clio’s perspective, only from people whose paths she crossed, was affected by, or affected, in one way or another: fourteen different viewpoint characters helpfully noted on a page labelled Some People inserted between the epigraph and page one. Listed in alphabetical order of their given names these are: Adele, a nurse; Danny Mansfield, a tour manager, a husband; Donald Bain, a godfather (unofficial;) Eileen Johnstone, a mother; Hamza Hussain, a boyfriend; Ida Edwards, a woman on a train; Jess Blake, a comrade; Malcolm Campbell, a father; Neil Munro, a journalist; Ruth Jones, a friend; Sammi Smith, a girl who lives in a squat; Shiv West, a popular musician; Simon Carruthers, a man at a wedding; Xanthe Christos, a former comrade. Taken in all they present a picture of a caring individual, who is at times blinkered to the ripples of her wake but is more sinned against than sinning.

Clio was brought up in an Ayrshire mining village by her mother and stepfather. (Her less than adequate father, also a musician, kicked out by Clio’s mother, had left to make a career in the US.) The 1980s miners’ strike left its legacy on Clio and through her life she remained a tireless advocate for the working-class cause, leading to not only that one hit song, but involvement in various political causes including a squat in Brixton, and devastation at the result of the Scottish Independence Referendum.

The journalist, Neil Munro, carries an unrequited torch for her and reflects somewhat jealously on her relationship with Danny Mansfield, “Beautiful women take lovers. He’d just never worked out why the lovers they took had to be such total arseholes.” One chapter set in the squat gives us Xanthe’s scathing verdict on lefties, “all of them so sure that their rollies, their pouches and their papers were another way of sticking it to corporate culture.” Another includes an explanation of the card game Scabby Queen, where there is only one queen in the deck. The card gets passed around as quickly as possible since the person left with her at the end loses and suffers a forfeit. (If this is supposed to be a metaphor for Clio’s life it doesn’t quite work.)

In the squat a man called Mark Carr had sex with most of the female activists. Clio later discovers he was an undercover policeman and therefore they had been “raped by the state”. The exposure of Carr, seeking justice against him and his superiors for his actions, becomes one of Clio’s causes, one she single-mindedly follows to the hilt despite the potential wreckage this pursuit could cause to the lives of others who were in the squat.

Ruth remembers her outlining all the good that could have flowed from an independent Scotland, including “amazing Scandinavian education” plus “an oil fund underpinning a citizen’s income and putting money into green energy programmes and all those beautiful things we were going to do,” how that would have confounded the sceptics. She hoped, “That they’d see then.”

But, given the ‘No’ vote, she laments, “Nothing I do or you do will ever make the slightest bit of difference …. They knew most of the country was fearty little boys like them, making snidey jokes because they’re afraid to believe in anything …. It’s why anyone from here who goes away and does well, we start laughing at them when they come back again …. There’s always some wee Scottish gremlin sitting there on yer shoulder, whispering its mantra. Naw. Naw. Naw.”

The suicide was Clio’s last act of political theatre, her final grab for attention and validation. In a note released to the press days after her death she says, “The codes that this modern world was built on are breaking down, allowing the worst bits of ourselves to rampage.”

Neil’s anguish over writing Clio’s obituary, “How did you use words, black on white with a finite limit, slotting into a pre-designed space on a page, to describe what a person’s life had been?” are belied by the story we are reading. This novel shows exactly how you use words to describe a life.

Scabby Queen is brilliant. A superb portrait not only of a complicated, contrary character, an embodiment of Caledonian anti-syzygy, but also of the society she lived in and the times she passed through.

Pedant’s corner:- snuck (sneaked, but snuck may have been in character,) “one wee Fife village” (it was Clackmannan which is not in Fife, and actually it was not the village but Clackmannanshire as a whole.)

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

Tinder Press, 2020, 384 p.

 Hamnet cover

Is there anyone who reads who does not know that Shakespeare had a son called Hamnet, who died as a boy, a name immortalised a few years later in the play titled Hamlet? This is not a spoiler in any case as in a short preface O’Farrell tells us as much, and that Hamnet and Hamlet were the same name, entirely interchangeable in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

In its writing this novel has echoes of Wolf Hall, whether that be because of the Tudor setting, or that Hamnet’s grandfather is quick with his fists, or a kind of linguistic obscurantism. In Hilary Mantel’s novel Thomas Cromwell was often denoted cryptically as “he,” Here characters are sometimes described simply as “a boy” or “a woman” and Hamnet’s father is never referred to by name, only as, variously, “the Latin Tutor,” “the husband,” or “the father.”

This distancing is quite deliberate on O’Farrell’s part as the novel’s focus is not on the son, (who dies two thirds of the way in anyway,) nor indeed is it on the husband and father. This is the story of the wife and mother, Agnes, pronounced Ann’yes and so liable to be misheard as Anne. It is a beautiful piece of imagining on O’Farrell’s part, evoking life in Tudor England utterly convincingly, illustrating the fluctuating balances of power within families, rescuing Agnes from the sidelines of history, revealing her as a vibrant, complex character in her own right. In it she also manages to provide a better explanation than the usual one for the playwright’s famous bequest – as an act of love.

In part I the chapters mostly alternate between the goings-on in Henley Street, Stratford, in the run-up to Hamnet contracting his fatal illness (where there is actually a fair degree of attention paid to Hamnet,) and the earlier life of his mother and father, how they met, got together, married and had three children. Despite Agnes having the gift of (second) sight, Hamnet’s twin Judith comes as a surprise, is then given up for dead on arrival after him, but subject to Agnes’s frantic efforts to keep her alive and her constant worry thereafter. Agnes is also a dispenser of herbal remedies. There is a passage written from the point of view of a hooded kestrel in an apple store which is quite beautifully done and also a diversionary chapter on the mechanism of how Hamnet may have caught bubonic plague, beginning with a flea in Alexandria, the plague bacillus eventually transferring to England via a glassmaker in Venice. Though never emphasised as such, interplay between the characters suggest the seeds for what was to come in the plays. Part II by contrast deals with the aftermath of Hamnet’s death and its chapters follow the story linearly. Grief is a difficult sense to communicate in fiction but we see its expression in all of the family and feel it through them.

Use of the present tense can be alienating but O’Farrell’s deployment of the device is superb, keeping the action contingent, reminding us that to the characters the events she shows us were happening in the here and now, there was still the possibility of an alternative outcome. It brilliantly conveys Hamnet’s distracted state of mind as he scurries about the empty house (usually so full of people) seeking help when his twin falls ill. O’Farrell is tremendous too on Agnes’s experience of childbirth. I doubt a man could ever have transmitted the sensations, feelings and worries so effectively. Throughout, the author is totally in control and the final scenes, as Agnes hurries off to London to ask her husband why he dared to use his dead son’s name in a play, are magnificent. The play, after all, has kept that name alive.

Hamnet is a wonderful novel. How it was left off the Booker Prize long- and shortlist last year is beyond me. It did, though, win the Women’s Fiction Prize and the Dalkey Literary Awards and was shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.

Pedant’s corner:- epicentre (used, wrongly, in the sense of absolute centre,) “the dark maw of the ground” (it was the opening of a grave; not a stomach, then, therefore not a maw,) stoved in (stove in, or, staved in,) “that all is not as it should be” (that not all is as it should be.) “She sits up nights” (she sits up at night,) hoofs (in my youth the plural was always ‘hooves’.)

Summer by Ali Smith

Hamish Hamilton, 2020, 391 p.

This is the fourth in Smith’s Seasons quartet, conceived as a response to the Brexit upheaval, but here set, as the novel is, in 2020, somewhat overtaken by Covid. As in all her books it is rendered with an unjustified right margin which still looks odd to begin with but after a few pages does not intrude. Like Spring this instalment begins with a page or so’s discourse on our times, this one on the indifference with which certain people have greeted the flagrant breaking of societal and political norms in recent years, a metaphorical – and perhaps actual – shrugging of shoulders and saying “So?”

A contrast to that metaphorical shrugging comes later on when Daniel Gluck, a child refugee from the Nazis who featured in Autumn, remembers his internment in Britain early in World War 2 and the support the interned refugees received from MPs and from the wider public. Of the British people at the time he recalls his father saying, “They know about fairness now, and why to go to war, and what happens when you do. They know about newspapers that lie for money. They know you don’t put innocent people in prison. The British are just. They’re practical. They’re calm, they’re civilized, now. They’ll put it right.” It is left to the reader to make any invidious comparison. Gluck’s sister Hannah was meanwhile stuck in France and trusted her child to the care of the French couple with whom she lodged while she engaged in working with the resistance.

The novel unfolds through various viewpoints one of whom is environmentally conscious Sacha Greenlaw, whose father has moved in next door to the family home with his new, younger, Welsh lover, Ashley. Sacha is plagued by her younger brother Robert, who has fallen down the rabbit hole of right-wing websites and once told Ashley to go back to Wales as, after Brexit, she wasn’t wanted here. Their mother Grace just gets on with things but has memories of her own. Robert has two heroes. One is Einstein, the other “looks like he’s acting a bit drunk or acting like a boy not a man” and reflects that for a Prime Minister to appear dishevelled is “a brilliant subterfuge to look like he doesn’t know what he’s doing and to make people like him for it.” A (very unamusing) practical joke Robert plays on Sacha leads to her being befriended by Charlotte and Arthur – see Winter – who run a website with “thoughtful analysis of the shapes things take in art and nature” and have been tasked with returning a fragment of a Barbara Hepworth sculpture to a man Arthur’s mother once knew. They are also activists of a sort. Through them Sacha learns about Hero who has been detained by the immigration authorities after being trafficked and she writes to him. The last section of the book contains his reply – from the safe haven of Arthur’s Aunt’s house to where he has been released due to Covid.

Summer really only incidentally comments on political issues but is all the more effective for that. The characters present as individuals and are dealt with sympathetically. I suspect that when she conceived the sequence Smith planned for this last instalment to be a hopeful one (it is titled Summer after all) but the events she is reflecting may have militated against that. There isn’t really much of a plot though.

Pedant’s corner:- “And from those clouds it isn’t rain that fell” (from those clouds it wasn’t rain that fell,) “as she walked along pavement” (the pavement, or, a pavement,) a spoken sentence not capitalised at its start.

The House by the Loch by Kirsty Wark

Two Roads, 2019, 377 p.

 The House by the Loch cover

This is the story of three generations of the MacMillan family, grandfather Walter, his children Patrick and Fiona, and grandchildren Carson, Iona and Peter. But before we get into that, in a preface which signals that not all will be sweetness and light, we are shown Walter’s childhood memory of witnessing the wartime crash of a Spitfire piloted by a Czech Flying Officer, Frantisek Hekl, into Loch Doon in the Galloway hills. Subsequently Walter built a cairn to Hekl’s memory on a hill above the loch.

In the present day of the narrative, Fiona’s philandering husband, Roland, a successful architect who piggy-backed on her design aesthetic, has built on the shores of the loch a modern, hi-tech replacement for one of the two log cabins Walter had given his children. Patrick and his wife Elinor meanwhile, are content with the more modest lifestyle of a teacher and illustrator respectively. Occasional chapters give the history of Walter’s meeting with his wife Jean (Thompson) and their life together.

Coming down from their house in Ayr for holidays on the loch is an idyllic relief for Carson from her irritations with younger sister Iona which are, though, exacerbated at times by Iona’s idolisation of cousin Pete. The strains in Roland’s and Fiona’s marriage bear echoes of Walter’s with Jean though Fiona’s drinking is less of a fatal flaw then Jean’s. But lochs have their dangers and, when tragedy strikes, each of the characters is in some way to blame for it and all their lives are turned upside down.

Wark has the Scottish novelist’s eye for landscape and she handles character well enough but her prose sometimes leaves a bit to be desired as occasional phrases lean to the tin-eared or ill-considered. There is, too, a jumpiness to the sequencing, lending a feeling of skittishness to the text.

Pedant’s corner:- “Time interval later” count: high – including two successive sentences starting, “Ten years later.” Bonus points though for “amn’t I?” said by characters brought up in Scotland. I also note that the cousin raised in England says, “aren’t I?”
Otherwise; “a timpani” (timpani is plural; one of them is a timpano,) “walked away towards to his son” (either ‘towards’, or, ‘to’, not both.) “‘Are you, hell,’” (that comma removes the sense, which was, ‘“are you hell”’,) a sentence which started with ‘Within seconds’ and finished three lines later with ‘disappeared out of sight in seconds.’ The Black Narcissus (the film – and book it was derived from – was titled simply Black Narcissus, staunch (x 2, stanch,) Burns’ (Burns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “two candelabras” (as a word ‘candelabra’ is already plural; one is a candelabrum,) “until a torrent of tears forced their way through” (a torrent … forced its way.) “The sat drinking” (They sat,) “she saw pure white vapour trail” (she saw the pure white vapour trail.) In the Acnowledgements, “where the remains of Frantisek Hekl’s Spitfire rests” (where the remains rest.)

Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner

Faber & Faber, 2014, 349 p.

This book’s first page after the epigraph (which is from Proverbs 24:2 and also provides the novel with its title) simply gives us the date. 1984. While the Thatcher government and the miners’ strike are an intermittent background concern they never impinge directly on proceedings. Narrator Douglas Cunningham, a Scot, has been thrown out of his rented flat in London, plus his course in English Lit at University College, and is surfing hospital A&E departments as places to spend the night. In one of them he meets Welshman Llewellyn Smith (Lou) whose stitches following a heart operation have burst. Learning of Douglas’s predicament Lou invites him to stay at his flat in Acton where he lives with his girlfriend Aoife McCrissican and their very young daughter, Lily. Lou is also well versed in literature and wants to be a novelist. On entering the flat Lou quotes “‘that Cyril Connolly bastard. The enemy of promise is the pram in the hallway,’” then adds, “‘Is it now? Our hallway is too narrow to fit the bloody pram in.’” His generous offer seems to be taken in her stride by Aoife, who accepts Douglas readily into their lives (helped initially by the bribe of an Indian carry-out.) However, even as he settles down to live with them for a while we suspect where this will all be going when Douglas tells us she is menacingly beautiful.

Theirs is a curious tripartite relationship. Lou, like Douglas, is fond of drink and the odd bit of financial finagling as the trio’s existence is one long round of trying to find money to live on and secure enough alcohol to get by. All take turns at looking after Lily. (She seems uncannily placid for a pre-toddler, though.) Slight monetary relief is secured when a publisher engages both men to write one-line puffs for schlocky horror novels. Aoife is a former model and hankers to get back to that, an aspiration on which Lou is less keen. Aoife’s best friend, Abingdon Barbour, also a model, acts as occasional foil to the others. At Lou and Aoife’s Register Office wedding Douglas and Abby are best man and bridesmaid.

Lou is a (somewhat lapsed) Catholic and refers to Douglas as an atheist because of his assumed Presbyterianism. Douglas’s narrative comment that, “Summer was agony for the idle Scot. It was September, and I had a natural right to some driving sleet, or at least a blessed frost,” takes homesickness a little too far though. Lou also sometimes ends a sentence addressed to Douglas with the word boyo. I have never personally heard a Welsh person say this. Is it a reflection of Warner’s experience with Welsh people or merely a lazy attempt at characterisation? If the latter it is misguided. Lou’s behaviour and speech are comprehensible enough and need no prop to give them verisimilitude. All the main characters – and the minor ones too – live and breathe as people with their own motivations and habits.

Lou is the most pass-remarkable of them. He describes a bunch of squaddies who tried to chat Aoife up while they were on their way to her parents’ house for Christmas as, “‘king’s shilling fascists, restless since the Falklands, I should guess. Itching to poke their Armalites into another country’s business. The English are never happy unless they are.’” Of his father-in-law he says, “‘Never trust a Catholic who doesn’t drink. They’re either converted, poxed or psychotic.’”

I have said before that Warner’s early novels left me cold but as in The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven, The Deadman’s Pedal and The Stars in the Bright Sky Warner has captured here a slice of life in convincing detail. One more novel to chronicle the perennial fascination of love and sex. (Death does occur here but it is a natural one, of Lou’s grandmother, Myrtle, who brought him up. Her funeral recharges his Catholicism though, which more or less leads to the novel’s final crisis.)

Humans can be bewilderingly complex creatures. Novels such as this give us the vicarious experience of knowing others, feeling their loves, betrayals and, on occasion, nobility, without having to live with them and the consequences of their actions.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Its affected, boyo.’” (‘It’s affected’,) shrunk (shrank,) a missing comma before – and after – a quoted piece of speech, ass (several times; is used annoyingly in that USian way to refer to the female posterior. The nearest – and more true to the narrator’s background – British equivalent is ‘bum’,) “the baby was laying in Aoife’s lap” (the baby was lying in Aoife’s lap,) “and immediately ascended stairs with banisters and blank walls on either side of you” (I got the imprsession this was a stairway flanked by walls, in which case there would be no need of banisters. Handrails maybe, but not banisters,) “gin and limes” (‘and lime’ here is an adjectival phrase to the noun ‘gin’, the plural is ‘gins’; so, ‘gins and lime’ or ‘gins with lime’”,) Wales’ (x 2, Wales’s,) “he was sat” (he was sitting,) “I was sat” (I was sitting,) “I turned to look and her” (to look at her,) “my zipper” (my zip,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.)

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

Two Roads, 2020, 331 p, including 5 p Author’s Note and 1 p Acknowledgements.

At first this promises to be solely the story of Isabel Aird, married to a doctor, Alexander, who is disgusted by the conditions of the poor working class of 1856 Glasgow and wishes to alleviate them. To this end he is drawn to the position of physician to the construction works of the scheme designed to carry the pure waters of Loch Katrine in the Trossachs to the city in order to combat the ravages of cholera, an arduous project requiring tunnelling through extremely hard rock wth nothing but pickaxes, sweat and gunpowder, “the greatest engineering marvel since the construction of the aqueducts of Rome” – a system still in existence, whose flow is driven by gravity alone. The novel soon broadens out though into a wider account.

Isabel has suffered a multiplicity of miscarriages or still-births (the irony of her being married to a doctor is not lost on her) and at first is not keen on a move to the wilds but on her first visit to Loch Chon she is enchanted by the views and for all its deprivations becomes enthusiastic about living there.

Many of the chapters are related in third person from Isabel’s point of view but there are two first person contributions, one from the viewpoint of Robert Kirke, a kirk minister who disappeared into the world of faery in 1698 but has now returned with a commission from what in Gaelic are known as the sìthichean, and the other from Kirsty McEchern, the wife of a navvy working on the project, written as if it is the verbatim transcript of her memories as told to someone who for a long time remains unidentified. There are also curious interpolations from the life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, mostly in the form of letters from the Prince. (The Queen was famously entranced by the Trossachs – and Scotland in general – and did open the waterworks in 1859.)

Like many Scottish lochs Loch Chon has a legend of a supernatural denizen, in this case a black Dog who at times will rise from the surface to swallow human victims. This is one of the many tales of the sìthichean known to Kirsty, who, being an islander from Mull, is well versed in Gaelic superstition (or knowledge as she would have called it.) This legend is central to Kirke’s commission from the land of faery and to the novel’s denouement.

It is with this part of the book that I initially had least patience. Then I reflected that dealings with the supernatural – the Devil especially, but also faery – are a staple of Scottish literature. So too, exhibited here by Robert Kirke, is psychological duality. (In her Author’s Note Magnusson calls that a familiar trope. To my mind that enduring concern is something more profound than a trope; it is a deep reflection of the Scottish character – see the third and second last paragraphs in the link.)

A parallel between the lives of Isabel and Queen Victoria is that both had nine children. Well Victoria did, only Isabel’s ninth (the one of the book’s title) survived gestation and birth. The plot and the denouement both of course depend on this.

Magnusson writes really well, she expresses the ups and downs of the Airds’ marriage sensitively, captures superbly the voices, doubts and thoughts of both Kirke and Kirsty and her descriptions of the Trossachs landscape are evocative, while the necessary conveying of information about the construction works is never intrusive.

This is another example of the enduring fascination of the novel with love and death but unlike in Magnusson’s earlier The Sealwoman’s Gift sex is absent from the pages, though its consequences of course are not. The Ninth Child is not quite as accomplished as that previous novel but it is certainly good enough to be going on with.

(At the end of the book are appended eight “Reading Group Questions,” a practice I find patronising. Not reading groups themselves I hasten to add, rather the fact that they are held to need some sort of prompting to ask questions of a text.)

Pedant’s corner:- “‘as soon as another epidemic hoves into view’” (hove is the past tense (and it is in any case ‘hove’ not ‘hoves’,) so here it should be ‘heaves into view’,) “a Yorkshireman with exuberant facial hair by the name of Bateman” (his beard was called Bateman?) “he had sawed a couple of fingers off” (sawn,) Descartes’ (Descartes’s,) “‘the taste of those mean cruelties were back on my tongue’” (either ‘the tastes’, or ‘was back’,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) Athole Highlanders (Atholl) powder your nose, (the phrase was in juse in the nineteenth century but I would have thought it an unlikely expression for a navvie’s wife though it was said many years after the events in the book and she had been in “polite” company in the interim,) maw (it’s not a mouth, it’s a stomach.) In the Reading group questions; “navvie’s wife” (navvy’s wife.)

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.)

The Gleam in the North by D K Broster

Windmill, 1958, 302 p.

The Gleam in the North cover

This is the second of Broster’s Jacobite trilogy (the first of which, The Flight of the Heron, I wrote about here.) Again it follows the fortunes of Ewen Cameron of Ardroy and also once more starts with a scene set at the Loch of the Eagle on his estate. Ewen’s son Donald pushes his younger brother Keith into the loch as revenge for him throwing his favourite object, a sword hilt memento from the Battle of Culloden, into the loch. Ewen has to effect a rescue but Keith becomes ill and the local doctor is summoned but is on a call. Meanwhile Ewen’s cousin Archibald Cameron, still in the service of the young Pretender, Charles Edward Stuart, and so subject to government attainder, turns up at the house and, as a doctor himself, ministers to the child. When Doctor Kincaid arrives he surmises the Camerons’ visitor is indeed the wanted man and informs the authorities. So Ewen’s adventures begin once more, as he is taken in to Fort William to be questioned and eventually bust out.

In his peregrinations about the Western Highlands trying to avoid government soldiery Ewen comes across Viscount Aveling, half-brother of the Major Keith Windham whom he befriended in The Flight of the Heron and from whom he learns that Archibald Cameron’s whereabouts have been betrayed. In the process, though, he makes an enemy of Aveling. Trying to warn Archie, Ewen only ends up injured during his capture.

After convalescing, Ewen makes his way to London to attempt to secure Doctor Cameron’s release and one night rescues a gentleman from street thieves. This turns out to be Lord Stowe, Aveling’s father. Coincidences being stretched a mite too far here perhaps. The rest of the book is made up of Ewen’s encounters with Aveling’s mother, Jacobite turncoats and trying to intercede with the Duke of Argyll, a Campbell and so sworn enemy of the Camerons but the government’s man for Scottish affairs.

While not as immediate in its chronicling of historical events as was The Flight of the Heron Broster manages to keep the level of peril reasonably high. A description of the Aurora Borealis could be taken to be the gleam in the north of the book’s title, as well as an allusion to the residual glimmer of the hopes of the Stuart dynasty, but the aurora’s relatively quick disappearance “as if it had never been” does not, quite, apply to the ramifications of the 1745 Jacobite rising.

Sensitivity alert. In a piece of stereotyping racist to modern eyes, a black servant of Lord Stowe is named Sambo.

Pedant’s corner:- had …. sowed (sown,) “would none of the thanks” (would have none of,) an extra comma in “‘Yes,, you may do that’”,) “once for all” (once and for all,) “They an prove nothing” (They can prove nothing,) gillie (ghillie,) “requires, it for his chaise” (no comma necessary,) a missing single quote mark at the end of a thought followed by a missing start one at the direct speech following on from it, a missing comma at the end of a piece of direct speech where the sentence carried on, paplably (palpably,) Gailbraith (elsewhere Galbraith,) Lock Arkaig (Loch Arkaig,) caryatides (caryatids.)

End Games in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

Penguin, 1982, 158 p.

It is the duty of the detective story to set the world to rights, to remedy the transgression at its heart (usually a murder) by bringing its perpetrator to justice. The literary novel, however, affects to resemble the world in all its aspects – albeit mostly via a microcosm of that world – and therefore, unlike in the classic crime novel, good does not always prevail.

Massie’s series of books set in Bordeaux during wartime and occupation (of which the previous three were Death In Bordeaux, Dark Summer in Bordeaux and Cold Winter in Bordeaux,) seeks to square that circle, employing a literary sensibility but examining various crimes highlighting the more sordid aspects of human nature. In this final instalment things are again seen mainly from the point of view of Jean Lannes, Superintendent in the police judiciaire, who has been suspended from duty for being less than cooperative with the German occupiers, whose marriage has seen better days, whose sons are variously working for Vichy or acting as an agent for the Special Operations Executive and whose daughter’s boyfriend is on the Eastern Front with the Legion of French volunteers against Bolshevism. Wartime France in microcosm then.

Massie’s Bordeaux quartet is of course dealing, albeit obliquely, with an almighty transgression, the enormity of Nazi ideology. Inextricably bound up with that in these novels is the reality of French collaboration; willingly or not most French people were compromised by it, soiled by association. These are, however, matters that Lannes cannot remediate in any way. While the reader knows the outcome of the war, the prospect of the usual consolation of the detective novel is nevertheless withheld. It is to Massie’s credit that he illuminates the sheer grubbiness of life in such circumstances and intimates the deceptions with which the French people will reassure themselves after the war. Even the Allied landings in Normandy do not lift the gloom as the Germans still hang on in Bordeaux and their adherents, such as the Milice, continue to persecute those they deem traitors either to (Vichy) France or to what they would call decency.

The incident which starts proceedings here isn’t a crime, though. Lannes is asked privately to investigate the disappearance of Marie-Adelaide d’Herblay, a nineteen year-old who has gone off with one Aurélien Mabire, apparently of her own volition. This is something of a red herring as it serves only to draw Lannes once again into the sordid realm of the advocate Labiche whose various misdeeds have preoccupied Lannes for the whole Quartet, but it does relate back to earlier events where a music teacher was procuring very young girls for those who had a taste for them. Lannes is desperate to find someone to testify against Labiche, of whom he has a compromising photograph, but when Marie-Adelaide eventually turns up to see him her reaction is not what he expected.

Massie’s object is not to have justice done. It is to illustrate the complexities of human nature – especially under stress. No-one in the book is without fault of some sort – except perhaps the prostitute Yvette, for whom Lannes developed a soft spot and who of course, as a horizontal collaborator (even if out of necessity,) suffers the consequences of being labelled as such when the occupation ends.

In the end here, no-one is as they were at the beginning, the war has changed everything, except the influence of the powerful, or those who gravitate towards it. As is usual the literary novel unveils evolution; hence that circle isn’t squared. I’m not sure crime aficionados will be satisfied with this. The literary reader may also find the quartet’s focus to be too narrow.

Pedant’s corner:- Lannes’ (all names ending in ‘s’ are given s’ for their possessive form; but still, Lannes’s,) staunch (stanch,) Chemin-les-Dames (Chemin-des-Dames,) “no older that Dominique” (than,) Francois’ (since the ‘s’ in Francois is never pronounced its possessive demands ’s after it; Francois’s,) a question mark at the end of a spoken sentence that wasn’t a question, “and distrusted rather that envying the rich” (rather than envied.) “‘Expect it is, really’” (in context ‘Except it is’ makes more sense.)

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