Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Polygon, Publisher, Ron Butlin, Scotland, Setting

‘The Sound of my Voice’ by Ron Butlin

The sound of my voice

Fiction – paperback; Polygon; 146 pages; 2018.

Oh. My. Goodness. This. Book. Is. Genius.

But don’t take my word for it. Irvine Welsh, in the introduction to this newly republished edition of The Sound of My Voice, describes it as “one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s”.

And Lizzy Siddal describes it as one of her “top 5 novels of all time” (her review is here). It was thanks to Lizzy that I got to read this book at all: I won a copy in a recent competition she hosted on her blog.

A man who has it all

The Sound of My Voice, which was first published by Canongate in 1987, is reminiscent of  Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City but with one important difference: unlike McInerney’s unnamed narrator, an aspiring journalist whose marriage has fallen apart, the main character, Morris Magellan, has it all. He has an important job as an executive in a biscuit factory (hence the image on the front cover), a devoted wife, two children (whom he dubs “the accusations”) and a home of his own.

On the surface he looks like he’s leading his best life, but scratch a little deeper and you’ll see that he’s not. For Morris is a high-functioning alcoholic who’s struggling to keep all the balls in the air:

The thing about drink is knowing when to use it and not letting it use you. One drink’ll charge the system, get it in gear; but a second could be too much. Knowing when to drink and when to stop — that’s the trick.

He’s convinced himself that he’s in control of the bottle — “Yes, maybe you do have a drink now and again, but no one could say it affected your work” — but to the reader it becomes increasingly clear that he uses it to get through the day and to keep the rising tide of mud that surrounds him at bay.

Over the years you have become very skilful at sensing what is expected of you, irrespective of your own needs or wishes. You have never been accepted, nor have you ever tried to be; you have never loved, hated or been angry. Instead you have known only the anxieties of performance: that you do not make even one mistake by forgetting a line or missing a cue.

As Morris’ story unfolds — all narrated in the second person using a self-deprecating voice that is filled with sophistry and self-deception — we learn what is troubling him and how it all begins to unravel when he witnesses a horrific event on his way to work.

In that one moment, the restraining forces of over twenty years was suddenly released — tearing apart the darkness and yourself.

Dark humour

While the story is underpinned by pathos and a dark undercurrent that suggests all will not end well for Morris, there are many laugh-out-loud moments and scenes that would be absolutely hilarious if his behaviour wasn’t so appalling. The use of the second-person narrative puts us right in Morris’ head, making us complicit in his crimes and unable to restrain the worst of his excesses. He spends every day trying to avoid the voice in his head which is hell-bent on self-destruction.

It is his poor devoted wife that one feels sorry for, and yet we never hear her side of the story; she’s always filtered through Morris’ eyes. I longed to understand whether she truly understood her husband’s problems or whether she was too self-obsessed to notice; we never find out.

In the Afterword to this edition, the author says he  “poured my heart and soul into this novel”. You can tell. The Sound of My Voice is a wonderfully perceptive portrait of the lies we sometimes tell ourselves to get through modern life. It brims with compassion, humanity — and kindness. Five stars.

20 books of summer (2017), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2017, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, London, Polygon, Publisher, Setting

‘The Devil’s Staircase’ by Helen FitzGerald

The Devil's Staircase by Helen Fitzgerald

Fiction – Kindle edition; Polygon; 224 pages; 2012.

First things first. The Devil’s Staircase by Helen FitzGerald is completely ludicrous. But it’s also entertaining — provided, of course, you suspend belief, try not to analyse the holes in the plot or the rationality (or otherwise) of the characters and don’t mind your fiction being dark and edgy.

Backpacking life in London

It tells the story of Bronny, a likeable but naive 18-year-old Australian, who’s just had a blood test to determine whether she has inherited the genetic disorder that killed her mother. She’s too scared to find out the result, so runs away to London without telling her father or elder sister.

She’s spent most of her teenage years frightened of being diagnosed with Huntington’s disease and has lived her life cautiously:

There was darkness, seeping into me.
I missed out on a lot in those four years:
I never went on the Scenic Railway at Luna Park.
I never kissed a boy in case I began to love him.
I never applied for university.
I never lost my virginity.
I was already dead.

In London she falls in with a group of backpackers and moves into a squat (an abandoned town house off the Bayswater Road) next door to a hostel, finds herself a meaningless job handing out towels in a gym and goes on an unabashed mission to lose her virginity. She makes new friends, goes sight-seeing, starts taking drugs and generally learns to loosen up a little. It’s all very far removed from her life in rural Australia living at home with her nice dad and her high achieving sister.

But there’s a dark element to the storyline, which comes as a bit of a shock when it’s revealed more than a third of the way through: there’s a woman hidden away in the basement of the squat. She’s gagged and bound to a chair. She’s been kidnapped by a depraved young man, who uses her for sexual gratification, and there doesn’t seem to be any way out of her predicament.

FitzGerald interleaves these two narrative threads — Bronny’s new hedonistic life in London (told in the first person) with the terrified woman in the basement (told in the third person) — to build up a sense of mounting tension: when will Bronny realise there’s someone stuck in the cellar below her room and do something about it?

Fast-paced read

The story is, of course, bonkers and far-fetched. It’s fast-paced though and I ripped through it in about three sittings. But it does make for uncomfortable reading, because in typical FitzGerald style she never shies away from writing about the questionable morality of ordinary people and doesn’t seem to mind if her fiction is exploitative. (She’s worked for the Scottish probation and parole service for more than a decade, so I suspect she’s seen it all.)

While it’s essentially a psychological thriller with a dark, noirish bent, The Devil’s Staircase does throw up some pertinent issues. For instance, is it ethical to be tested for a genetic disorder when you’re a teenager and how do you live with the results when they are disclosed? Does living your life mean doing things that may risk it? What can we do to stop depravity in seemingly ordinary people? How does losing a parent at a young age affect the rest your life?

This is a genuinely dark and edgy read, with great characterisation and superb pacing, but I question the exploitative nature of some of the basement scenes. Still, as a form of escapism, it’s difficult to beat and makes me relieved that my early days as a backpacker in London were nothing like this!

This is my 8th book for #AWW2017 and my 5th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it online in August 2015 for the princely sum of 99p. I’ve read several of Fitzgerald’s novels, so knew it would be an entertaining read.

Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Polygon, Publisher, Robin Jenkins, Scotland, Setting

‘A Very Scotch Affair’ by Robin Jenkins


Fiction – paperback; Polygon; 191 pages; 2005.

The late Robin Jenkins is a Scottish author, best known for his 1955 novel The Cone Gatherers. But up until last November I had never heard of him. It was only while browsing in Waterstone’s in Edinburgh that I chanced upon A Very Scotch Affair, first published in 1968, and liked the sound of the plot — a man stuck in a miserable marriage decides to leave his wife even though she’s been diagnosed with cancer — and bought it on the spot.

Now, having read it, and laughed along with it, been angered by it, and wept over it, I want to rush out and buy all of Jenkins’ back catalogue, which supposedly runs to 30 works of fiction, although not all of them remain in print. If A Very Scotch Affair is indicative of his talent, then the man surely is a genius. In fact, the late Scottish nationalist Sir Compton Mackenzie described him as the “most outstanding novelist that Scotland has produced since the war” and even BBC journalist Andrew Marr has weighed in with this claim on the blurb: “If you are interested in books that are humane and wise, not slick and cynical, then treat yourself this year to some Robin Jenkins”.

The book is set in Glasgow in the 1960s. It feels profoundly Scottish, not just because of the strong sense of place but by several of the characters who speak in dialect.

It opens on a dark, snowy January afternoon, and Mungo Niven, an insurance collector with a socialist streak, is in a tearoom with his lover, Myra, discussing their adulterous relationship and the possibility of running away to Spain. But there’s something holding Mungo back, despite the fact he clearly detests his wife of 24 years, Bess, whom he describes as “fat, gluttonous, unimaginative, and, in the dark, lecherous”.

“As I’ve said before, Mungo, your wife degrades you.”
Yes, it was true, Bess did degrade him, wilfully. All their married life she, who never read a book herself, had sought to stultify his every intellectual ambition.
“Your children will go their own ways soon enough. Why sacrifice yourself any longer on their account? They certainly won’t thank you for it. Yes, Mungo, the time’s come when you must escape.”

And so, by the time Mungo returns to his dingy little house in Minden Street that he shares with Bess and their children — university student Andrew, 20; sixth-former Peggy, 18; and Billy, 11 — he’s made up his mind to leave that very night. Even when Peggy reveals that Bess is not well, that she’s been complaining about a severe pain in her stomach, he’s still plotting his escape route.

It’s difficult to say much more about the plot without revealing crucial spoilers, but let’s just say it explores how Mungo’s decision affects everyone in his immediate family.

However, there’s more to this story than meets the eye. Jenkins offers a drip feed of information, slowly revealing the strengths and weakness of all his characters, so nothing is ever black and white. This makes it difficult to form judgements about who is in the wrong and who is in the right.  Should Mungo, and his strong conscience and weak willed desire, be condemned for his decision? Is Bess to blame for their seemingly one-sided marriage? Where do the children fit in, particularly Andrew who has his own relationship problems with which to contend? And what of Bess’s loyal siblings, and her friend, Florence McTaggart, who is so bitterly opposed to Mungo that she petitions everyone in the neighbourhood to cast him out as a villian?

This is a wonderfully realistic exploration of the far-reaching consequences of a private scandal made public. That Mungo has dreams far beyond his upbringing in a Glasgow ghetto and waits so long to put anything into action speaks volumes. That his overweight, over-cheerful wife does everything to keep him in the dull domesticity to which he’s become accustomed also says much about her character.

Jenkins writes all this with a lightness of touch, even though much of the subject matter is as dark and depressing as the city and the time in which the book is set. He has an uncanny ability to make even the blackest situations quite comic. There’s a wicked streak of humour running throughout the entire story that made me laugh and wince at the same time.

A Very Scotch Affair is a tragicomedy about love, betrayal, conscience and desire. It was my first Robin Jenkins novel; it won’t be my last.