All The Galaxies is a strange and hypnotic blend of four stories that cross and merge and unmerge again.
First, there is Scotland in the near future. Following a second independence referendum (which we presume Scotland lost), law and order has broken down in The Horrors, but strong city state governments have emerged from the remnants of local councils. Within Greater Glasgow, control is being reasserted, the internet has been restored and the leader of the sinister Wardens movement, Wee Lawrence, is in Barlinnie. Oh, and Rangers FC (or should that be Sevco) is no more – so it’s not all doom and gloom.
Second, there is the story of John Fallon, a news editor in the fictional Mercury newspaper. Originally from England, he has landed up in Glasgow, his wife long gone and contact with his adult son Roland about to evaporate. He and his crew try to provide objectivity and sense from the chaos, all the while lurching from bar to bar, extending one night stands for as long as they will go, living in debauched squalor.
Thirdly, there is the story of Fallon’s son Roland, remembering life in Tyrdale as a child, holidays to the Scottish islands and drunken student parties.
And finally, there is a boy, Tarka, travelling the heavens with his spirit-guide dog Kim.
The novel is really well constructed, balancing the elements carefully – no mean feat considering the multiple points of view and the strangeness of some of the subject matter. And the fourth narrative in the heavens is very strange indeed – no longer bound by the laws of physics, time, location or society. No dog lover could read this section without falling for Kim, the wise, kind, loyal and talkative border terrier (though whoever thought a cover picture of a dead dog would sell a book needs professional help).
My favourite story, though, is the Scottish dystopia. Knowing Glasgow helps – particularly the immediate environs of George Square and Kelvingrove. But knowing Scottish politics – and Northern Ireland’s recent history from which so many of the novel’s scenes have been borrowed – probably helps even more. And the great thing is that unlike typical fictional dystopias, we are not on the verge of the end of the world; we haven’t seen the collapse of the system; we haven’t descended into savage people roaming through smouldering embers in search of canned food. It is a plausible situation where commerce continues, communications remain in place, people travel and work and socialise, and Glasgow City Council officials seize the power they have spent their entire careers envying. And goodness me, Philip Miller must have spent some time in the “cube” of City Chambers to have been able to evoke it so accurately.
If there is a criticism, it is that the plot does not always live up to the stellar settings and descriptions. Only Tarka is allowed a personality that develops; the other characters have to be taken as found. Fallon’s life, in particular, is not always fascinating and the intrigue involving the journalists and the council was perhaps a little too murky and ended up a little too unresolved. In fact, the ending as a whole felt a bit of a let-down after much promise.
But these are minor criticisms of an otherwise excellent novel that will make the reader think about the ephemerality of life, the importance of love and friendship, the machinery of government, and astral dogs.
Bernard MacLaverty is a sublime writer and Midwinter Break is as good as anything he has ever written.
Gerry and Stella Gilmore are a long-married couple of pensionable age, living in Glasgow but originally from the north of Ireland. Gerry is fond of a nightcap and Stella has quite a strong Catholic faith. They know one another inside out. They have decided to take a mid-winter break to Amsterdam, perhaps to celebrate their enduring marriage.
Gradually, and gently, we start to see the flaws in the characters emerge. This is done with such grace; the reader knows, likes and empathises with both Gerry and Stella; the flaws that emerge are real, but we see the real people beneath and they are likeable. As they wander the streets of Amsterdam - both together and separately - they start to discover more about themselves and each other. Partly, they explore the present day, partly their lives in Glasgow, and partly their lives in Ireland.
This is a novel about ageing. I recognise myself in Gerry. In fact, the similarity between Gerry's life and my own is uncanny - right down to the night-time leg cramps. There are themes of unfulfilled ambition, fatigue, closure. There is guilt, including the nagging guilt about minor slights and mistakes from years ago. But also there is lots and lots of love. Not bodice ripping young love, but old, mature love that is too often taken for granted.
There is change, often not for the better. The change of a nature of a community, the change brought by significant events, and the change brought simply by time, with two people slowly ceasing to be who they once were. The questions that arise are whether to resist or accept those changes. It is an illustration of the Serenity Prayer:
"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference."
Midwinter Break is deeply moving. It speaks of truths that many of us will face some day soon.
Eleanor Oliphant is 30 years old, lives in Glasgow, works on accounts at a graphic designer, wears the same practical clothes every day, eats the same food and spends her weekend drinking vodka and doing the crosswords. Eleanor has no friends and no social life – beyond her weekly conversation with her mother. It’s existing, but it’s not really living.
Initially it has a feel of The Rosie Project. Comedy drawn from the lack of social awareness of someone with an undiagnosed psychological disorder somewhere close to Asperger’s Syndrome. But it soon becomes clear that Eleanor’s problems are borne of childhood trauma rather than underdeveloped emotional awareness. Whilst Eleanor is gauche, she is not completely socially stunted; she has self-awareness and the capacity to learn. And learn she does. This is essentially a Bildungsroman – a coming of age story – but with an abnormally late developer. There is genuine comedy gold in the process – particularly as Eleanor finds reasons to alter her image.
At times, in honesty, Eleanor’s apparent ignorance of modern culture and appliances stretches credulity, but it is easy to go along with the conceit for the sake of the humour. Yet at its heart, there are real people like Eleanor. Even in Glasgow, a city with a rough and ready reputation, there are a few delicate flowers who wince at the sound of swearing, who maintain prim and proper manners to the point of prissiness, and profess never to have stepped into a pub. There are people in every city whose lives fall into lonely ruts as a way of avoiding difficult decisions and facing up to the need for personal development.
As the novel unfolds, more detail of Eleanor’s past emerges at the same time as she takes more responsibility for facing up to – and improving – her situation. The reader becomes increasingly sympathetic towards her and wills her to beat her demons.
This is not a novel that relies on tricks and although there is a twist at the end, it doesn’t define the novel. What really makes the story special is the narrative voice. Eleanor is defiant even at her most desperate. She does not look to others to solve her problems and doesn’t even really want to admit to having problems. Many people are in a worse situation than her, she reasons. Even as she does emerge from her isolation, it is not to address a particular problem; rather it is a strategy to achieve a particular goal. She can be self-depricating, but never whiney.
Eleanor Oliphant is a really fantastic book that affirms all that is good about modern Scottish society; it is an optimistic book that will stay with me.
This Is Memorial Device is a fictional documentary of a fictional band, Memorial Device, that hailed from Airdrie, a small, predominantly Catholic town in the west of Scotland.
The documentary is compiled by Ross Raymond, a wannabe journalist whose youth was greatly impacted by the local music scene. The four band members of Memorial Device were his heroes. The band was seen as the culmination of various precursor bands, and shone brightly and briefly before the members went off to pursue different directions.
Some chapters are editorial, written by Ross himself. Others are in the form of interviews or reminiscences of those who were close to the band at the time – archivists, lovers, rivals. The introduction of these chapters is not terribly well signposted, and much of the content is rambling which can lead to confusion about the relationships between the dozens of characters – never fear, there is an Appendix listing everyone who is mentioned, however briefly.
The result is a fragmentary story with little plot and absolutely no direction. There’s not even a terribly clear timeline to cling to. Instead, we have microscopic level of detail and analysis, focused on the music scene in Airdrie in the 1970s and 1980s. Occasionally there is a hint of aspiration – an interview at a record company in London – but mostly we are talking about people who are absolute legends within a circle of no more than 50 others. Their celebrity status is portrayed without question and without irony; the detail of their lives is picked over in such forensic detail because it really matters to Ross and those who were there at the time.
There are drugs, there is drink; there is deviant sex. This is not a novel for the faint hearted. But what makes it is that it is so recognisable. Those of us fortunate enough to grow up in small towns in the same time period will recognise the importance of pub bands, cafes, the local independent record shop, the local weirdo, the time Steve Sims got a pint of beer poured over him for talking to the wrong girl. The beauty is in the sincerity with which people there at the time believe in the importance of these markers, even though they appear utterly trivial and irrelevant to those who were not in exactly that point of space and time.
Memorial Device is not an easy read. At times, in truth, it is bewildering, repetitive and boring. It is written with a slavish adherence to authenticity, much as Roberto Bolaño achieved with his History of Nazi Literature in the Americas or his meticulous list of murders in 2666. And almost half the length is an index of pretty much everything that is mentioned anywhere. The reader has to marvel at the effort that would have been required to produce this despite the certainty that it would be of no value to anyone. The ultimate effect of this strange text is something that is satisfying to have read, even if the journey makes the reader wonder whether it is worth the effort.
I have previously read two Kelmans - You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free, and A Disaffection. From these two, I understood Kelman to be a master of the interior monologue of mundane/seedy characters. In YHTBC, it was a Scots alcoholoc in the USA, looking to return home. In Disaffection, it was a pretty hopeless teacher failing to hit it off with a pretty work colleague. I thought YHTBC was a masterpiece, but A Disaffection left me rather cold. The thing is, with these monologues, that you have to actually care about the character and his life - there's no plot or action worth speaking of, just a question of how the chaarcter got to the present situation and how they feel about it. The action is at best incidental.
In How Late It Was, How Late, the central character, Sammy (Mr Samuels) is a natural victim. He is afraid of authority and is hopelessly fatalistic. He wakes up after a bender, in the street, wearing rubbish trainers instead of his good shoes. He sees some policemen and picks a fight with them. He is arrested, beaten up and loses his sight. The monologue then sets out to explore how he came to be in that situation - apparently he is an ex-prisoner who has had a big row with his girlfriend; he also has an ex-wife and son; he has a reasonable set of friends; and a benefit dependency.
HLIWHL also explores how Sammy reacts to his sight loss. He initially curses his luck, but is fatalistically accepting, as he tries to find his way home from the police station. He has to decide how to become mobile and to feed himself. He is worried about losing his benefits (no longer available for work) so he sets off to the Broo. Sammy's natural instinct when dealing with authority is either to say nothing or to lie. This he does with aplomb, even though he might have been better served by telling the truth. He cannot explain how he lost his sight without mentioning the police, but he doesn't want to take on the police in a battle for compensation.
One is left in admiration for Sammy's resourcefulness as he tries to avoid seeking help from others. This adds to Sammy's complexity - that he would willingly accept the broo, but won't accept the help of an individual. But gradually, Sammy comes to see that he has to accept help and you can feel his pride ebbing into the pavement as he does.
Sammy brings misfortune on himself - and he knows this to be true - but without ever being malicious. He is just weak. His stoicism as he bears his punishments is remarkable, even though they seem to be out of all proportion to the original offence. To an extent this might be through cultivating a state of denial, but there is also a very practical attitude of dealing with the future rather than worrying about the past.
The text is very intense, and although it is possible to gallop through pages in short bursts, I found the need to escape frequently. The result is that I spent quite a while travelling along with Sammy. I feel I have grown from the experience.