I wanted to love A Book Of Death And Fish. Stunning reviews, promising the definitive Hebridean novel, centred on Stornoway where I spent a happy year of my life. What could there possibly be not to like?
Sadly, the reality was a hotch potch of short articles, mostly telling us things we already knew (the fate of the Iolaire) or things we could never possibly want to know (the intimate details of fishing for business and pleasure). It read like journalism, not fiction. The voice varies from wooden and factual to outlandish Scots. This, despite (as far as I could tell) the supposition of a single narrator. For a novel, there is precious little narrative drive. It’s basically one man’s observation of what is going on around him, sliced and diced into little packages and put into a seemingly random order. And repeated.
And repeated again.
I should confess at this point that I read only the first 20% of the book. Perhaps things pick up after this. Perhaps the Martian landing on Barbhas Moor galvanised the Lewis people to set up a people’s army in defiance of the policy of appeasement being fed to them by the Scottish Office, leading to meetings in smoke filled rooms to plan the unilateral declaration of independence, supported by clandestine importation of arms from Libya. But if this is where things went, I will never know. The first 20% was simply so boring, disjointed and clunky. And sprinkling in a couple of helpings of Gaelic words and Lewis dialect may persuade some that this is a work of fine poetry but to this reader it looks like window-dressing to hide a very plain view.
Stornoway deserves better. It should be possible to relate the social changes alluded to in this book through a more engaging protagonist and a supporting cast of real people, not just cardboard cut-outs. The subject matter cries out for a real, human voice with a soul, not some newscaster reciting facts set out on a script.
Can I have my money back?
Charity collections of short stories are a bit of a gamble; this one pays off. Ten writers, all top rate (many of whose full works I have previously read) and all contributing good stories. The theme is crime; in many cases this means good old murder, but one or two of the writers have taken a more oblique angle. In the case of Christopher Brookmyer's and Alison Kennedy's stories, it's not actually clear what crime, if any, has been committed. Nevertheless, these are perhaps two of the standout stories. Only a couple of the stories didn't quite work for me; the rest may not all have been deep, but they were diverse and entertaining. And in this case, having ten different voices worked well and avoided the sameness that you often get from reading ten stories by the same writer.
There is supposed to be an Edinburgh theme to the stories (the collection is to raise money for a city trust) but this never feels forced and, in truth, a couple of the stories didn't really seem to have an Edinburgh angle at all.
This is an inexpensive collection; it's a quick read, but well worth it.
The Amber Fury is a first novel and, I’m afraid, it shows.
Set in contemporary Edinburgh, we find Alex Morris starting off a new role providing drama therapy within an educational unit for kids who have been thrown out of mainstream schools. We soon learn that the role was made available by her former university tutor as a favour to allow Alex to escape from London and her grief following the death of her fiancé Luke. But how far has she exchanged one uncomfortable situation for another?
The real trouble with the novel is that the plot, pacing and structure seem to operate in competition with one another. Attempts to drip feed information to create dramatic suspense lead to the earlier narrative feeling wrong. For example, why would Alex be focusing all her thought and all her narrative on one class when, as an educator, she would have taught many classes? There is a reason that becomes apparent towards the end of the novel, but only at the expense of the bulk of the novel feeling awkward. But had the reasons been laid out early on, it would have ruined the tension. A bit of a dilemma.
This also has an impact on the pacing, which is slow with the first half of the novel (at least) giving little indication of where it was going. This was addressed with asides to the reader along the lines of ‘at this point nobody had to die’, or ‘if only I had walked away at that point’. I paraphrase, but the tendency to rely on prolepsis to cover up a slow story is pretty clunky.
And the language is clunky. Alex’s narrative feels leaden and soporific. There’s a great focus on the geography of Edinburgh (which is impeccably correct) with little actual sense of place. Aside from the basement teaching room in Rankeillor Street, the rest of the city seems to be nothing more than the location of specific transactions. Where the text is interwoven with the diary of one of the kids, it provides some level of relief, allowing a fast track to understanding motivation. But this is the only real source of three dimensional characterisation. Alex’s narrative – perhaps blunted by grief – is just flat.
There are also some elements of legal and police process that don’t feel right – and indeed seem to be inconsistent from the first part of the novel to the second. Some of the behaviour doesn’t quite feel right either, particularly Alex’s compulsive Friday meanderings.
On the positive front, the story is intriguing and when (eventually) the story takes off, it is quite compelling. At the end, it feels as though it was more enjoyable than it felt whilst being read. The parallels between the Greek tragedies and modern day play out well, albeit they are spelled out quite heavily in the final pages. There is enough in the way of ideas to make one curious to see where Natalie Haynes takes it next – and hopefully she will iron out her difficulties in technique in due course.
Overall verdict – worth reading, but only just.
A Capital Union is a novel about conflicting loyalties.
Told by Agnes, a young Ayrshire girl who has found herself in 1942, under the age of 18, married to Jeff, a University of Edinburgh lecturer. Jeff’s field of study is linguistics – specifically recording Scots dialect. He “found” Agnes whilst recording Ayrshire Scots and whisked her off to his late mother’s tenement in affluent Morningside. Agnes is out of her depth; she is expected to be genteel, refined and able to keep house despite the privations of rationing. She depends heavily on Jeff, whom she barely knows, to guide her in her new station.
So, Agnes is surprised to find that Jeff is involved in nationalist politics, being prominent in a campaign to not recognise the Westminster government’s conscription to arms. Agnes is mortified to be associated with such an unpopular campaign and is afraid on the one hand that she will be ostracised from a community in which she already feels uncomfortable, and afraid on the other that she will be left on her own if Jeff is jailed as a conscientious objector.
From the outset, there are conflicts between the national and the personal. Jeff is also not too keen on the idea of imprisonment and this will test his political resolve. But he is also tested by the fact he is supposedly taking his stand – just as he is recording Scots dialect – to protect the Scottish birthright of people like Agnes who seem so ambivalent to his objectives. Meanwhile, the astute reader will pick up that, as a Sgitheanach, he is already compromising himself by working to preserve the Scots dialect (or Lallans, as he would have it) whilst ignoring the early signs of the demise of his own Gàidhlig language.
Agnes, for her part, is terribly young and extremely naïve. She married simply because she thought marriage was inevitable, but being barely more than a child she looks for love wherever she can find it. Although having grave misgivings with Jeff, she looks to others who are more extreme still. She seems to deal with people purely on the basis of her last contact with them – if they were nice to her she will be loyal to them; if they were unkind to her she will betray them. This, despite bringing her into conflict with her purported wartime patriotic duty.
The relationships are intriguing and Agnes is an engaging character. The men seem much more to be ciphers and feel less real – perhaps because we are forced to see them through Agnes’s uneducated eyes. But the writing tends to clunk. The early pre-occupation with Scots dialect feels like random words dropped into an English sentence. It doesn’t flow or feel authentic. Later on, a character speaks in German and always follows up each German sentence with a direct translation into English. This *really* grates. And the ending feels rushed and rather improbable.
On a positive note, Victoria Hendry does a good job in describing Edinburgh at war – a city that still had life and activity, famous buildings and whisky; that felt at one remove from the rather more familiar image of wartime London.
A Capital Union is a good effort, but just doesn’t quite deliver on its promise. It skirts important issues and important conflicts without quite getting into enough depth. It could have been more focused on the identity of a nation; it could have been more focused on the identity of a person. In the event, it didn’t quite manage either.
Graduates’ Art, Scotland ‘09 - Roger Billcliffe Gallery
As an art lover, I’ve always found it interesting to wander through the graduate shows of the art school in whichever city I’ve happened to live in. Roger Billcliffe, proprietor of the eponymously named gallery on Blythswood Street, Glasgow, has gone one better by gathering some of the strongest material from the graduate shows this summer at the four Scottish art schools, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. This is an ideal chance to sample the newest Scottish art from the country’s freshest talents without wading through endless winding corridors. Of course this selected approach means you see only a fraction of what’s on offer and may miss out on excellent work not chosen for the limited gallery space, but for those without the time to peruse whole graduate shows at leisure, it’s an excellent opportunity to see some accomplished work by new names.
The strongest pieces in the show for me were the two duotone photo etchings by Ellie Royle that smack the viewer in the face as you walk in. I was magnetically drawn to one of them, The Impossible View Number 5 - ‘Main Corridor’, without knowing that Billcliffe had picked it as the cover picture for the invitations to the opening. Desolate, atmospheric and haunting, the picture shows a devastated space in the aftermath of destruction. In its disturbing, mysterious depiction of ruin and its large scale it conjures up the work of the contemporary German artist Anselm Keifer, who also focused on barren, deserted land or city scapes, while the disturbing sense of unease it evokes is reminiscent of surrealist painters like Ernst, De Chirico and even Dali. Royle has presumably projected the photograph negative onto a photo-senstitive etching plate and then printed onto paper. Some of the paper is embossed, adding texture to the picture. The two tones of colour add an element of chiaroscuro, the contrast between dark and pale exaggerating the disquieting feeling of being in a place haunted by memories.
Part of the joy of graduate shows is the wide range of media and styles used by the fledgling artists. Anna Simpson Caneli has used hundreds of stamps to create images that are simultaneously colourful, aesthetically pleasing and historically informative. Stamps bearing photos of a young and naive Charles and Diana and a beaming Andrew and Sarah Ferguson share space with others depicting ancient kings such as Henry lV. Key figures from the abolition of the slave trade sit alongside cartoon depictions of Tommy Cooper and other stars from the world of entertainment. It is a mini chronicle of our times, history compressed into a single frame.
August Krogan-Roley’s Hyper-extended Cranium is an oil depiction of domestic chaos. An anarchic washing machine has disgorged its contents around a room. The strewn clothes lie in heaps on the ground and suspended from a drying rack. The washing machine electric flex stretches in unruly wriggles across the floor and leads up a red staircase to an unknown room, possibly a site of further disarray. Picture frames hang skew on the walls. A green staircase leads perhaps to more peaceful places.
Sarah Whitehouse’s painting Necessary Provisions for Mental Stability features mechanical structures made up of cogs and wheels which invoke Tinguely’s machines and the geometric shapes and mechanical structures of Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare, but in two-dimensional form. Fish heads and jester’s faces taunt the viewer.
Rae Fisher’s Fause Young Man is a vast picture, mixed media on canvas, executed in beige, dun browns and black, often in smears. A lone figure huddles against an impenetrable wall. Tiles with random letters are arranged on the ground, perhaps a metaphor for the unknown code required to break free.
Michael Lacey’s The Balloonist features a giant glowering, menacing face suspending a tiny body in the air. A flock of birds fly excitedly around a church dome nearby. Miriam Mitchell Bennett’s Angel is an oil painting of a huge face depicted in broad, coarse brush strokes which, paradoxically, merge to form a gentle, nurturing face like that of an ideal mother. Angels come in all shapes and sizes, as do exciting new artists.
Graduates ‘09 is on at the Roger Billcliffe Gallery, 134 Blytheswood Street Glasgow G2 4EL, 0141 332 4027 until Sept 29th ‘09.