Jim Drever is a stillman at an unnamed distillery in the Scottish Highlands. It is a solitary job, allowing much time for introspection between recording measurements of alcoholic strength in the logbook. Jim’s job is important; he is respected in the workplace by his colleagues and the management. He has a perfect family; a wife, a daughter who is about to get married; and a younger son. Jim has a placid nature; he has no great wish to travel or see the world; he simply accepts the cards that life has dealt him.
But beneath the calm exterior, Jim has a lot going on. He is haunted by a visit he had made overseas some years ago to clear up his estranged mother’s affairs. He has a mysterious e-mail he dares not open. He is bored by his family. He has an expensive wedding to plan, and the distillery is working on short time. Jim is a smart man, but for the most part he wastes his wisdom on quiet observation, letting events take their own course. The reader is left wondering just how sustainable this strategy is going to be as things go from bad to worse.
The novel has three distinctive strands: (a) the here and now, heavily focused on the distilling process, snow and the selection of kilts (b.) the trip to Cuba some years before; and (c.) the sometimes opaque diary of Jim’s dead mother. The three strands work together well; in particular, the sunshine and vitality of Cuba offer a contrast to the cold and cheerless Scotland. The diary is the crucial bit storywise, but it is also the least engaging part of the piece. Jim’s dead mother never quite comes alive, never really feels real. Perhaps even worse, it feels a bit contrived.
Overall, The Stillman is a good novel. Like its protagonist, it is unspectacular, solid, and with hidden depths. It is a short read, well paced and quite charming.