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Brond by Frederic Lindsay

Polygon, 2007, 220 p. First published 1984. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

 Brond cover

Glasgow University student Richard sees a man throw a boy off a bridge into the River Kelvin but at first thinks he must have imagined it. Through the medium of fellow student Margaret Briody, whom he fancies and who asks him to deliver a package for her, it is not long before he is drawn into a complex situation involving IRA sleepers, multiple murder and the machinations of agents of the state against Scottish independence activists (though this last does not become clear until quite late on in the book.) Chief of those agents is the mysterious Brond of the title, whose baleful presence pervades the novel.

Before settling into the more or less standard thriller mode, though with the odd philosophical aside, the narrative has a tendency to be slightly overwritten, as if Lindsay is trying too hard, though there are some fine touches. (Of the noise-propagating acoustics of the University of Glasgow’s Reading Room Robert says, “It was such a drawback in a library I was sure the architect must have won a clutch of awards.”)

The politics of the plot are mostly relegated to the background. One character describes Scotland as a valuable piece of real estate, another opines, “here in Scotland we have this difficulty finding our voice.” One English girl questions Robert, “‘What do you mean “accent”?’” before adding, “‘I don’t talk like a Cockney… I talk like ordinary people who sound as if they don’t come from anywhere.’” One of the spooks speaks of the necessity “‘to forestall … the risk, however remote, of the natives here getting restless.’”

In my view there are too many thriller/crime novels on that “100 Best” list. Brond is yet another. I can see, because of the background politics, why some people might regard it as a significant Scottish novel but it doesn’t, to my mind, really address the nature of Scottishness, or go much beyond “the state acts in its own interests” trope though it incidentally reflects attitudes of some English people to their neighbours.

It does, however, all pass easily enough but I was never able to suspend my disbelief to the required degree.

Pedant’s corner:- like lightening (lightning,) sulphur lamps (they did give off a yellowish light but they were sodium lamps,) the Barrows (always known as the Barras, never the Barrows. Its name above its gates even says ‘the Barras’,) contigent (contingent,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech, comitments (commitments.)

King Rat by China Miéville

Pan, 1999. 421p

King Rat cover

Saul Garamond is arrested when his father is found dead having fallen, jumped or been pushed, through a window of their house. Saul is sprung from custody by a mysterious figure who calls himself King Rat and asserts that Saul’s mother was a Rat. King Rat is able to move freely between the London which Saul knows and the unnoticed spaces which constitute a hidden Rat city. Under his tutelage Saul becomes rat-like too but King Rat, of course, is not quite what he seems. In this netherworld Saul also meets the Bird Superior, Loplop, and Anansi, head of the spiders. Meanwhile Saul’s friend Natasha, a creator/DJ of Drum and Bass, is befriended by a mysterious flute player called Pete and Police Inspector Crowley is increasingly puzzled by the spate of bizarre and bloody murders occurring on his patch.

The other city conceit seems to be one of Miéville’s running themes; it also occurs in Un Lun Dun and THE CITY & YTIC EHT though of course this would be its first appearance. (King Rat is the last in my attempt to catch up with Miéville’s oeuvre apart from his latest Kraken.) This one is very London-centric though, which annoyed me strangely.

The language of the novel is simple; even a little sketchy at times. In this it has pre-echoes of Un Lun Dun. Indeed, were it not for the violence and the expletives this could well have been a tale for young adults.

Though the plot strands do cohere and music is integral to its resolution, at times the novel appears diffuse, as if it does not know whether to be a fantasy, a musical odyssey or a police procedural – though it has embedded within it a nice retelling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story told from the rats’ point of view. Miéville also takes the opportunity to throw in a minor bit of political consciousness raising.

Had I read this on first publication I could certainly have foreseen an Un Lun Dun – though perhaps not a Perdido Street Station.

But: One of the characters seems to be under the impression that layered music never existed before Drum and Bass. Come off it.

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