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The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne

A Tale of the Pacific Ocean.

EriK Publishing, 2017, 239 p. First published 1858. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 The Coral Island cover

When I first saw this on the list of 100 best Scottish books I wondered if I had read it in my youth. Reading it now (which I would not have done were it not on the list) its contents struck absolutely no bells in my memory.

This is a tale narrated by Ralph Rover of three cheery lads; himself, the older Jack Martin and the younger Peterkin Gay, and their life after shipwreck on the coral island of the title, a place with bountiful food, not only cocoa-nuts, bread-fruit, yams, taro, plums and potatoes, but also pigs and ducks and of course fish. Their ingenuity and resourcefulness (not, what with all that bounty, do they really need them much) allow them to lead a happy life until it is disrupted first by the descent on their shores by South Sea natives at war with each other (one side whom our heroes naturally get the better of, the other side then becoming free to return to their home) then by pirates. Ralph falls into the latter’s hands and is transported across and around the Pacific islands before eventually finding his way back to rescue Mark and Peterkin.

The book is of course riddled with the cultural assumptions of the time in which it was written. A flavour of this is given when Peterkin asserts of potential black inhabitants, very early on when the three don’t know what exactly they will find, “‘Of course we’ll rise, naturally, to the top of affairs: white men always do in savage countries.’” (Those sensitively disposed should note the text contains one instance of the word “niggers” and that is put into the mouth of a pirate.)

Much play is made of this “savagery” and of the cannibalism of the region’s as yet unconverted natives as contrasted with Ralph’s intermittent piety (after he lost his Bible in the shipwreck.) To a man – and woman – the natives are redeemed, civilised and instantly ennobled by the adoption of Christianity. The more, though, that the text insisted that those tales of cannibalism and savagery are true the more I came to resist the thought. In any case, the savagery displayed was no more than the pirates are shown to be capable of.

Reunited, the three set off to aid one of the native women of the freed warring party whose chief Ralph had become aware was refusing to allow her to marry whom she pleased and now threatened to kill her. That chief is much displeased when they turn up and soon imprisons them. The book ends with an almost literal deus ex machina as the three are saved by the conversion of their captor by a missionary.

The Coral Island is not the shipwreck on a deserted island ur-text – that would be Robinson Crusoe – but with its depiction of pirates it clearly had an influence on Treasure Island and Peter Pan and its suffocating certainties apparently festered in William Golding’s head and led to its antithesis in Lord of the Flies. That it holds such a position is the only possible reason to include it in a list of 100 best books. In terms of literary merit or insight into the human condition it belongs nowhere near one.

Pedant’s corner:- Both the cover and the title page bear the words “with illustrations by the author.” None were to be found inside. Otherwise; contains mid-nineteenth century spellings – cocoa-nuts, sewed, etc. Otherwise; occasional omissions of commas before pieces of direct speech, ricochetting, (ricocheting,) maw (it’s not a mouth,) “signed to several of attendants” (of his attendants,) “seized Jack and Peterkin and violently by the collars” (doesn’t need that second ‘and’.)

The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

Hodder and Stoughton, 2013, 298 p.

 The Girl on the Stairs cover

The viewpoint character here is Jane, heavily pregnant and newly arrived in Berlin to stay with her Lebenspartner, Petra, in an apartment block. The room being prepared for the baby is dark and overlooked by a derelict set of flats. Their neighbours are a single man and his daughter, Alban and Anna Mann. Anna is the titular girl on the stairs. Jane overhears Anna’s father shouting at her and sees bruises on her face and so becomes increasingly convinced Anna is being abused, despite Anna’s denials.

She observes Anna in various situations, at a U-Bahn station interacting with older boys, crossing the space towards the derelict flats – a haunt for all sorts of undesirable behaviour – coming out of the downstairs flat, where the Beckers live, going into the nearby church which has a relatively new young priest. On talking with Frau Becker, a woman still mentally scarred by the Russian occupation of Berlin, she is told Mann killed his wife, Greta, and buried her under the floorboards in the flats opposite.

All the while Petra is less than attentive to Jane, out at work all day or off to a conference in Vienna, and Jane’s imagination whirls around, causing her to delve into Anna’s life and unwittingly to set in train a chain of events which will lead to tragedy and a vindication, of sorts.

Via the medium of Mann’s former professional life as a gynaecologist Welsh offers the possibility that Jane’s fears about Anna are a consequence of pregnancy affecting her emotional balance or if they are indeed valid.

Welsh’s writing is smooth and fluid, the novel exquisitely plotted, the psychological motivations and subtleties of the characters utterly believable and the whole is never less than readable and engaging but there was something about it that felt as if it was an exercise verging on by the numbers. Perhaps it was the foreign setting – and in that respect Berlin was an absence here, there was nothing to illustrate the character of the city – but there was something distanced about it, not in the Muriel Spark class of distanced but certainly more surface then depth. Crime aficionados would probably find it fine though.

Pedant’s corner:- “she wanted nothing more but to lie down” (usually ‘than to lie down’,) occasional missing commas before pieces of direct speech, politeness’ (politeness’s,) “aren’t I?” (Jane is Scottish, supposed to be from Glasgow, she would say ‘amn’t I?’) staunch (stanch,) “out of synch” (usually ‘out of sync’.) “The congregation were beginning to” (was beginning to,) focussed (focused.)

Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin

Salt, 2014, 246 p.

 Ghost Moon  cover

Curiously that’s two books in quick succession where the main character has been named Maggie. Here it is one Maggie Davies, though in the care home where she endures her declining months she is known as Maggie Stewart.

The story is told in interleaved sections. Those which recount from his point of view the visits of Maggie’s son Tom to his uncomprehending, dementia suffering mother, are always headed Sunday (though, one, on Maggie’s birthday actually occurs on a Monday,) and other, longer, numbered chapters tell the story of the life which led her there; a life not exactly flashing before her eyes but recollected in non-tranquillity. The final chapter, titled Sunday Afternoon, interweaves paragraphs from the two time-lines as the end nears.

Maggie spent the post-Second World War years seeing her twenties fade into thirty without attracting an admirer and fell prey to the dubious charms of the first man who gave her some attention only to be promptly dumped. When the inevitable happened, her parents threw her out. She travelled to Lewis to the home of family acquaintances but, forewarned, they also treat her with disdain and contempt. Only in a guest-house does she encounter any warmth, when she and the landlady’s war-blinded son, Michael, fall for each other. Lewis is a small place, though, and her secret causes her to be thrown out from there too. Returning to Edinburgh, it is only her sister-in-law, Jean, who shows her any compassion or sympathy. She struggles to find a job in her unmarried condition and she is little better treated at Woodstock House where she contracts to be confined and for her child to be looked after until she can get on her feet. Butlin really brings out the utter callousness of “polite” society at this time towards those who had made a mistake or been too innocent – or both. Only her correspondence with Michael, carried out via his best friend, and her visits to Woodstock House to see Tom give her any comfort. When Michael contrives to travel to Edinburgh it seems a happy ending might be in store – but we know from the ‘Sunday’ sections this will not be forthcoming.

This is a wonderfully written slice of an aspect of social history and a blazing indictment of those blinded to compassion and consideration by self-righteousness.

Pedant’s corner:- Jenners doorway – later Jenners’ doorway (Jenners’s,) Queens Crescent (Queen’s Crescent – used later,) Mrs Saunders’ (Saunders’s,) “that the woman’s heart being turned over” (that the woman’s heart was being turned over,) Miss Davies’ (Davies’s.) “The Forth Road Bridge was a cat’s cradle of red” (the Road Bridge has never been red and wasn’t built till the early 1960s: this part of the novel was set in 1950. The Forth Bridge – the rail bridge, which requires no such distinguishing adjective and was completed in 189o – was meant,) “to start to paying Jean back” (to start paying Jean back,) “would would stop her” (only one ‘would’ needed,) an opening quote mark which wasn’t necessary as it was a descriptive passage, not dialogue, “in her wellingtons boots” either, ‘in her Wellingtons’, or, ‘in her wellington boots’.)

Voyageurs by Margaret Elphinstone

Canongate, 2004, 474 p.

 Voyageurs  cover

This formidably researched novel is set mainly in North America before and during the War of 1812 which was fought between the US and Britain (plus its Native American allies) but it is not concerned with that conflict except peripherally. The book is an example of a found manuscript, as supposedly written by Mark Greenhow, a Quaker from Cumbria – topped and tailed by an Editor’s Preface and Afterword, signed MNE, January 2003.

Greenhow was a Quaker from Cumbria. Most of his life was spent on a farm called Highside where the manuscript was ‘found’ hidden away when the ‘editor’ moved in. It reveals Mark’s life was turned upside down when his family received a letter from Canada telling them that his sister Rachel, previousy disowned from the Quaker Society of Friends for marrying her husband, Alan Mackenzie, before a priest, had disappeared somewhere in what was known as Upper Canada and therefore presumed dead. For Mark the ties of family outweighed the strictures of the Society and he resolved to go to Canada and try to find her. All his voyages (barring his final return home) as well as some incidents of his home life in the time before Rachel left for Canada are described in detail. Like most Scottish writers Elphinstone has a gift for landscape description, here deployed to convey the vastness of the North American continent and the local conditions. The customs of the time and the politics of fur-trading by the SouthWest Company are all necessary ingredients to the tale while the background to the war, whose prosecution, barring one small incident, remains off-stage, forms part of the novel’s plot as does Greenhow’s Quaker pacifism – or, I should say, his refusal to be involved in killing people.

The narrative is unavoidably tinged with Greenhow’s Quaker beliefs, with much talk of Monthly Meetings, the vanity of clothing, his soul-searching about relationships with the opposite sex and his failures fully to live up to the Society’s ideals.

A serious injury to Alan, who had additional reasons for undertaking once more the arduous journey to the island where Rachel disappeared, forces the three-man expedition to over-winter in the climate of north Lake Michigan, which even the indigenous peoples find inhospitable, and whose exigencies end up with Mark accommodating to what he considers pagan beliefs. They also bring home the unlikelihood of Rachel having survived. The sojourn also allows the three trapped men the opportunity to tell each other their life stories and so expand Elphinstone’s portrayal of their times. And far from being a hindrance Mark’s refusal to kill people ends up as an asset.

The ‘manuscript’’s text is peppered with Scots words – feart, clarty, grat – which I suppose could easily have been in the Cumbrian vocabulary in the early 19th century but will have to take on trust. And we have footnotes! Always a delight.

It is the characters, though, that shine through. Even the least is given careful consideration and expression. The puzzlement and, on being informed of its significance, the subsequent acquiescence of a local Ojibwa Chief when Mark extends his hand for shaking to seal a deal is a lovely vignette. Elphinstone makes you believe that this is really how people of this time were, and how they lived.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Acknowledgements; a capital letter after a semi-colon. Otherwise; “our line of the family have lived” (our line … has lived,) “if I ever I did” (only one ‘I’ needed,) “cost me Jaques favour” (Jaques’s,) “Kerners’ agent” (Kerners’s, though I concede it would probably not be pronounced with two ‘s’es,) Roberts’ (Roberts’s, ditto,) wigwam (from the limited descriptions in the text of the structures concerned it isn’t entirely clear whether these were in fact tepees,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, “that we’re used to here” (that we were used to,) span (spun, as used later,) James’ (James’s,)

The Finishing School by Muriel Spark

Penguin, 2005, 158 p.

The Finishing School cover

On reading this I found my dissatisfaction with Spark’s writing beginning to crystallise. Clearly people find it engaging and worthwhile but to me there is something cold and detached about it, observational yes, but uninvolving. Her de haut en bas style renders her characters flat and merely going through whatever motions Spark intends for them. They don’t come alive. They certainly don’t leap off the page and into my mind.

This one all starts promisingly enough with a lecture on scene-setting in writing delivered by the joint owner of College Sunrise, the Finishing School of the title. He is Rowland Mahler who runs the place along with his wife Nina (who actually does most of the work.) One of the attendees, Chris, a seventeen year-old, is writing a novel where he speculates the death of Lord Darnley, second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, was instigated by a desire for revenge on the part of Jacopo, brother of David Rizzio in whose murder Darnley was deeply implicated. Rowland has aspirations to be a novelist himself but having read Chris’s first two chapters finds himself blocked and increasingly obsessed with Chris.

That first page is deceptive though and we are soon pitched into a narrative where too much is told, not shown; where information is dispensed to the reader in a way that is like reading author’s notes for characters rather than experiencing them behaving as themselves. They may have passions but we are not given the opportunity to feel them but Spark does find space to include a few sideswipes at the publishing industry.

There are some interesting ideas here but they are not fleshed out. In the end this is not so much a novel, more like a series of preliminary sketches for one. Or an extended outline.

Pedant’s corner:- wirey (the word is spelled ‘wiry’,) automatons (automata,) a missing comma before a quote (x2,) to-day (why the hyphen? It’s spelled ‘today’,) “on the grounds of imputed, activities unbefitting her one-time royal connections” (doesn’t need that comma after ‘imputed’,) “‘Is that it’s natural colour?’” (its.)

Scar Culture by Toni Davidson

Rebel Inc, 1999, 253 p Including 9 p Appendices. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Scar Culture cover

Had it not been for that 100 best Scottish books list I would never have sought this out. As it was I couldn’t say I enjoyed it exactly but it was interesting and well written. It has an odd structure though, broken up into five sections titled respectively Click, Fright, Sad, Preparation, The Experiment; and the viewpoint shifts between Click and Fright and Fright and Sad are a bit jarring – but probably intentionally so.

The first two are memoirs of two inmates in The Breathhouse, a psychiatric institution, where the inmates have all been given nicknames by the staff to illustrate their quirks (not only Click and Fright, but also Blade, Dogger, Treats and Synth.)

Click took photographs both in actuality (once he was given a camera by his parents) and in his head. He calls his parents Exit (because she did) and Panic (because he was prone to.) Fright’s section is a transcript of tapes made of him relating his memories as part of his therapy. He and his brother witnessed his mother’s death at the hands of his father and were later subjected to dark experiences in a caravan. The last three sections are written from the viewpoint of Dr Curtis Sad who is indulging in psychosexual research in the area of inter-family sexuality. Sad calls his other professionals psychohacks, and receives communications from Peterson, a like-minded psychosexual researcher in the US (but whose letters, rendered in the text in italics, use British English spellings.)

Sad is obsessed with his Sister Josie, about whom he has memories/fantasies of a distinctly unbrotherly hue. These demonstrate he is as loopy as any of the inmates. He refers to “memory recovery as a form of lethal weapon,” is setting up an exercise in milieu therapy in which he will reconstruct the environments in which Click and Fright suffered their traumas. He enlists Blade, Dogger, Treats and Synth to help construct these. Does this sound as if all will go well?

Three appendices provide us respectively with the Rules of Psychiatry which Curtis refers to in sequence at intervals in the main narrative, notes from his sister Julie’s (much needed in my opinion given Sad’s account of her childhood and adolescence) psychotherapy sessions, and an index of Click’s photos.

In Scar Culture Davidson has opened up the world of the psychologically disturbed (and perhaps that of the practitioners of psychiatric well-being.) It is certainly important to consider in fiction the plight of the mentally unwell – and of those whose upbringing has rendered them unstable – but it is by no means a comfortable experience to read of them.

Curiously, my edition has rough-cut page edges (though the tops and bottoms were smooth) as if it had been published in the nineteenth century.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Its safe here’” (It’s,) “‘but I couldn’t been to look at him’” (couldn’t bear,) a missing end quotation mark (x2,) “was back here in that mountainside lagoon” (back there makes more sense,) out-with (it’s one word, outwith,) “tickled out feet” (our feet,) “he would researched” (he would be researched,) “an sheepish look” (a sheepish look,) “liked to fight too much, like to use her hands to scratch” (liked to use her hands,) “my parents lies’ left off” (my parents’ lies left off,) “that’s just kind of moronic psychobite” (just the kind of,) winge (whinge,) “in small coffin shaped cardboard box” (in a small,) “on the dolls back” (doll’s,) Breatthouse (elsewhere always Breathhouse,) a missing end quotation mark (x4, one in Appendix II,) snuck (sneaked,) “for the the first hour” (only one ‘the’ required,) “in regard, to why you are here” (no comma needed,) airplane (aeroplane.) “Every tree … had been stripped of their bark” (of its bark,) “nasal wines” (whines.)

Alasdair Gray

Sad, sad news.

Alasdair Gray has died.

If he had never done anything else in his life his first novel Lanark (arguably four novels) would have made him the most important Scottish writer of the twentieth century’s latter half, if not the whole century. (Perhaps only Lewis Grassic Gibbon rivals him in that respect.)

But of course he published 8 more novels, the last of which I read in 2009, 4 books of short stories – see this review of one of them – 3 of poetry (I reviewed a couple here and here,) many pieces for theatre, radio and television plus books of criticism (as here) and commentary (eg see here).

Yet that was not the least of it. There is also his work as an artist and illustrator to take into account. His drawing/painting style was unique and uniquely recognisable; much admired and sought after.

A polymath and curmudgeon, learned and contrary, Gray was one of a kind.

Even as his work lives on we will miss his acerbic presence.

And I still have his The Book of Prefaces to peruse.

Alasdair Gray: 28/12/1934 – 29/12/2019. So it goes.

Best of 2019

These are the books that stood out from my reading this year – in order of when I read them. 7 by men, 6 by women. 3 were SF or Fantasy.

The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone
Shiloh by Shelby Foote
A Strangeness in my Mind by Orhan Pamuk
The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame
Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng
A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Reading Scotland 2019

This was my Scottish reading (including a Scottish setting) in 2019.

Those in bold were in that list of 100 best Scottish Books.

15 by women, 15 by men, one non-fiction,* two with fantastical elements.

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
A Concussed History of Scotland by Frank Kuppner
Romanno Bridge by Andrew Greig
Winter by Ali Smith
Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land by John Crowley
The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher
Tunes of Glory by James Kennaway
Hy Brasil by Margaret Elphinstone
Sartor Resartus by Thomas Carlyle
The Land the Ravens Found by Naomi Mitchison
The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
Independence by Alasdair Gray*
The Lantern Bearers by Ronald Frame
Gone Are the Leaves by Anne Donovan
Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill
A Pass in the Grampians by Nan Shepherd
Brond by Frederic Lindsay
The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh
The Siege of Trencher’s Farm by Gordon Williams
Its Colours They Are Fine by Alan Spence
Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay
Salem Chapel by Mrs Oliphant
Transcription by Kate Atkinson
Spring by Ali Smith
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner
Jelly Roll by Luke Sutherland
The Citadel by A J Cronin

Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison
Where the Bodies Are Buried by Christopher Brookmyre

Where the Bodies Are Buried by Chris Brookmyre

Abacus, 2012, 411 p.

 Where the Bodies Are Buried cover

Aspiring actress Jasmine Sharp is another of Brookmyre’s innocents brought into contact with violent criminals. Her failure to get any parts has led her Uncle Jim to hire her to help out in his Private Investigator practice. Not that she’s very good at that either, yet The trouble is he’s disappeared and she needs to find him and to earn money. Her attempts to interest the police in looking for him fall flat.

We start, though, with the murder of a smalltime Glasgow gangster, Jai McDiarmid but the connection between this and what turns out to be the main plot is somewhat tenuous. Detective Superintendent Catherine McLeod is put on his case, allowing Brookmyre to highlight the denizens of the Glasgow outwith-the-law fraternity. McLeod has the obligatory plagued personal life of the detective novel protagonist though her troubles are of a low-key variety.
A file on Uncle Jim’s desk reveals he was looking into a decades old disappearance of parents and a child on behalf of the left behind daughter. Jasmine’s efforts to follow this up lead her to hardman Tron Ingrams, once known as Glen Fallan, who has been thought dead for twenty years.

The lead characters are not as interesting as those in Brookmyre’s Jack Parlabane and Angelique de Xavia novels. Or, are they just more perfunctorily drawn? Moreover the prose rarely if ever rises above the functional. Where the Bodies Are Buried feels like crime writing by the numbers.

“He who controls the spice controls the universe” which Brookmyre characterises as an eighties movie reference does however show his affinity with Science Fiction.

Pedant’s corner:- “there are a select few semiologists” (strictly, there is a select few,) “… person to be sat in front of me” (seated, or, sitting,) Collins’ (Collins’s,) growed-up (surely even hard-boiled Glaswegians say ‘grown-up’,) Cairns’ (Cairns’s,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, Ingrams’ (Ingrams’s,) “coming off of” (I know it’s Glaswegian dialect but this was in ‘normal’ prose; coming off, no ‘of’,) middle-age spread (it’s usually middle-aged spread,) “oblivious of the tension” (it’s ‘oblivious to’.) Central station (it’s a proper noun, Central Station,) Motley Crue (I believe that band spells its name with erroneous umlauts, Mötley Crüe.)

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