One day a cockroach decides to leave the safety of the wood panelling in the Palace of Westminster, head across the road and into 10 Downing Street. In the morning, the cockroach discovers he has become Jim Sams, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
It seems the cockroach has made this metamorphosis at a time of national crisis - the population has narrowly voted to embark on Reversalism - a crazy idea of reversing money flow - and the Government is determined to deliver this outcome despite the manifest lunacy of doing so. This is obviously a parody of Brexit, although in one scene Jim Sams considers how Revarsalism might work when adopted by only one EU member state. Presumably this scene is enough to throw Brexiteers off the scent so they won't realise they are being lampooned.
This is not great literature - although it is also not bad. The main selling point is the topicality and obvious speed with which it has been thrown together and published. Some of the details - the arrival of Boris Johnson, the attempt at proroguing Parliament, the expulsion of long-standing members of the Conservative benches for opposing hard Brexit - are barely weeks old yet they play a pivotal role in this novella.
What is really depressing is the plausibility of the conceit that the Government (and perhaps President 45) are really cockroaches in disguise, running the world into the ground just for their own immediate self-interest. Does Boris Johnson lie awake at night and fondly remember his missing set of legs and his exoskeleton?
The Cockroach is (hopefully) a quirk, a piece of ephemera that will forever look like an oddity in the canon of a literary giant. It probably owes a big debt to Kafka, and the metaphor and the aliases are very transparent. The ending will really bug you [can you see what I did there?].
But it is as good an illustration of the madness of Brexit and the frustration at the lack of any real backbone in the opposition - especially its leader - that you'll find. It is shows how significant an issue Iain McEwan thinks it is, that he is willing to put his name and his branding to something so obviously created at speed.
This Is Memorial Device is a fictional documentary of a fictional band, Memorial Device, that hailed from Airdrie, a small, predominantly Protestant 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.
Fairly closely based on the Bible John murders in Glasgow in the 1960s, The Quaker offers a fictitious resolution to these unsolved murders.
Three women have been slain in Glasgow, meeting their killer in the Barrowlands ballroom and never making it home. The third victim had shared a taxi with her stocious sister and The Quaker; the sister offered the best – and only – hope of catching the killer. But after a year there had been no breakthrough and DI Duncan McCormack is sent into the investigation to determine whether or not to scale it down.
This leads to a complex story that is, on the face of it, a police procedural – with red herrings, corruption, distrust and a jewel heist – and part a social commentary on the changing social values of the 1960s. The Glasgow of the time had not yet reconciled itself to the abolition of the death penalty or decriminalisation of homosexuality. Single mothers were still scandalous, Catholics were still routinely disadvantaged, pubs were still not places that nice people went. In many ways, the killer represented a reaction against the encroaching modernity.
The novel is well written, had a suitable number of red herrings and creates a great sense of place. The sense of time, however, doesn’t always feel quite right. I’m not sure 1969 Glaswegians wore cagoules and worried about neds – maybe they did, but just that seed of doubt can dispel a setting.
The plot is quite lurid and appears to have been driven backwards from the ending. I’m not sure in the real world that a set of actions would ever have led to the consequences as they unfold. But it’s a good yarn, nonetheless, and might go some way to reigniting curiosity about the real Bible John.
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.