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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, literary fiction, New Island, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’ by Nuala Ní Chonchúir

The-closet-of-savage-mementos

Fiction – Kindle edition; New Island Books; 224 pages; 2014.

In late 2013 I read Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s astonishing debut novel You, which was about a young girl growing up in 1980s Dublin. Told in the present tense and in the second person (from the viewpoint of the girl), it was a truly memorable read, and when I heard the author had a new novel coming out I promptly bought myself a copy.

The Closet of Savage Mementos is perhaps the grown-up version of You, seeing as it tells the story of a young woman grappling with love, loss and difficult family relationships, who, some 20 years later, must confront the confusion, grief and anger associated with her past.

It’s a quietly understated read but hugely evocative of time and place, written in a straightforward prose style that brims with humanity and real emotion. It was only after I finished the novel that I discovered it was largely based on Ní Chonchúir’s own life, which only serves to make it a more poignant and profound read.

A novel in two parts

The book is divided into two parts. The first is set in 1991, when Lillis Yourell, a budding photographer who works part-time in a camera shop, takes a summer job as a waitress in the Highlands of Scotland. It’s something she’d been planning for a while, but when her best friend and sometime lover, Donal, dies in a motorbike accident it’s a way of clearing her head and coming to terms with her grief. It’s also a chance to escape her visual artist mother, Verity, an alcoholic with a tongue that cuts like a knife — “I hate people who remind me of myself. And Lillis reminds me so much of me that I could kill her” — and to ensure her gay brother, Robin, shoulders some of the responsibility of “parenting” her.

While in Scotland, Lillis falls for a much older man, and their romance, played out under the eyes of the small tourist community of Kinlochbrack, offers much-needed solace during a time of loneliness, but it also has unforeseen consequences that change Lillis’s life forever…

The second part of the book is set 20 years later. Lillis is 41 and back living in contemporary Dublin, where she continues to deal with her difficult mother, “a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian”. She’s recently married for the first time and just had a new baby. Life is interesting but what happened in Scotland all those years ago still niggles.

I don’t want to spoil the plot, so you’ll have to read the book, but let’s just say Lillis has the courage to confront — and reconcile — her past, and it’s rather lovely and sweet and tear-inducing.

New and fresh writing

As ever, the writing in this novel is gorgeous, probably not surprising given the author is also a poet. But open any page and there are sentences that sing, little descriptions that really capture a scene or a moment in new and fresh ways: the “navy lumps of the hills opposite are like whales, huge and motionless”, a baby’s “skin is butter soft” and he has “lamb-chubby thighs”; a blue paperweight with bubbles of glass around a piece of seaweed “looks like fireworks have gone off underwater”.

And the characters are wonderfully drawn, though some, such as Robin, are frustratingly unknowable, probably because we only ever really see things from Lillis’s point of view.

The Closet of Savage Mementos could be called a coming-of-age story, but I think it’s more firmly rooted in a sharply observed “life story” and how the arrival of motherhood changes the perception of ourselves and our own mothers. Indeed, if there is an overriding theme it is that the thing Lillis fears most is turning into her mother, based, I suspect, on the belief that bad parenting causes bad parenting.

Robin bent towards me. “Hey, do you remember the time you broke her china jug and the two of us buried it in the bottom of the garden? I was thinking about that yesterday.”
[…]
“God, I’d kind of forgotten about that day. She kept at us and at us until we showed her where we’d hidden the bits.”
“Then she locked us under the stairs. Good old Verity and her brilliant parenting.”

The book deals with some heavy subjects related to parenthood, marriage, siblings, betrayal, grief, death and alcoholism, but the author keeps a tight rein on the narrative and never lets it turn into a misery memoir. It’s lightened by moments of gentle humour — even the idea of Verity collecting roadkill to turn into “taxidart” is quite funny:

“She skins and mounts them and dresses them in costumes […] she was presented with a monkey recently; she gave it a pipe, a pinny and high heels.”

But in essence The Closet of Savage Mementos is just a great read. It’s a raw, honest and uncompromising novel about one woman reconciling her past with her present. I loved it.

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

‘The Changeling’ by Robin Jenkins

The-Changeling

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 240 pages; 2008.

Robin JenkinsThe Changeling, which was first published in 1958, is a remarkably powerful tale about the class divide — and one man’s attempts to bridge the gap and help someone less fortunate than himself.

That man is Charlie Forbes, a teacher — repeatedly overlooked for promotion — who strives always to see the good in his students, even if they may have bad reputations.

Thirteen-year-old Tom Curdie is one of those students. A product of the Glasgow slums, he is on probation for theft. His headmaster has labelled him as “deep and sly”, another says he’s “a practiced liar”, most regard him as having been “born wicked”, but Forbes recognises the boy’s intelligence and thinks he deserves a second chance. He hits upon the idea to take Tom on holiday with him, and informs his boss of his plans.

“I propose to take Tom Curdie with my family to Towellan this summer. It seems to me the experience might give the boy some support in the battle which he has constantly to wage against corruption.”

He is warned against the idea and told it is foolish, that his holiday will be ruined, but Forbes goes ahead regardless. His wife reluctantly agrees, and so the Forbes’ — Charlie, Mary, their two children, Gillian and Alistair, and Charlie’s mother-in-law, Mrs Storrocks — take Tom with them to the cottage in the countryside they stay in every summer. It’s perhaps telling that from the outset Tom is forced to sleep in a hut in the garden, because there’s not enough room for him indoors, though Tom doesn’t seem to mind.

But everyone else is on edge. Forbes constantly bickers with his wife, while Mrs Storrocks never keeps her (often prejudiced) thoughts to herself. Gillian, in particular, takes such a strong dislike to Tom she decides to spy on his every move, which leads to a shocking discovery that puts the whole holiday into doubt. There is talk of sending Tom back to whence he came, but Forbes is loath to end his social “experiment”…

A story about being good — and doing good

The Changeling is a fascinating read, as we watch the effect of Tom’s presence on each individual character and how their views and attitudes towards him change over time. Jenkins is particularly good at scene setting — his descriptions of the Scottish countryside are evocative, a kind of love letter to Nature, if you will — and his dialogue is rich and authentic.

Admittedly, some of it feels dated — Mrs Storrocks’ vile views, for instance, are what we’d now call “politically incorrect” but which I assume were probably quite common at the time — and even its depiction of the poor strays into cliché (Tom’s mother, for instance, is a complete caricature, the only character who speaks in dialect).

But its notion of fairness, justice and equality have never been more paramount, particularly in times of austerity. And the ways it explores what it is to be good and to do good, and the importance of social and moral responsibility, are spot on.  Its condemnation of child poverty and its long-lasting effects also make it an important read.

The Changeling isn’t without humour, however: some of the characters behave in ridiculous and comic ways, even if they might not know it, and the author occasionally pokes fun at Forbes, who is often absurdly jolly and has funny notions about nostalgia and romanticism. But on the whole this is a tragic story — and a deeply unsettling read.

Author, Birlinn, Book review, general, literary fiction, Publisher, Robin Jenkins, Scotland, Setting

‘The Pearl-fishers’ by Robin Jenkins

Pearl-fishers

Fiction – Kindle edition; Birlinn; 179 pages; 2011.

Several years ago I read Robin Jenkins’ A Very Scotch Affair and was so enamoured by it I bought several more of his novels — he has 30 to his name. Unfortunately, when I purchased The Pearl-fishers, which was heavily discounted as a Kindle edition, I hadn’t clocked it was a “lost” novel, the manuscript for which was found in a drawer after his death and published posthumously. I think this might explain why the book has a sort of unfinished feel to it and why I felt reading it was a waste of time.

Scottish pearl-fishers

Set sometime in the 1950s, the story  is about a family of pearl-fishers from Sutherland in Scotland, who travel 200 miles south because the patriarch is very ill and wants to die and be buried near his own people. Accompanying him on his journey is his middle-aged daughter and her three children — Effie, 19, Morag, 10, and Eddie, 6.

But their arrival in Argyllshire is met with hostility and prejudice by the locals, most of whom derive their living from forestry or farming, because the family are “tinkers” or “travellers” and they are viewed as dirty, thieving people who will set up camp and never leave. “We don’t want their kind here. Human trash, and not so human at that, doing their business behind bushes, like animals,” is how one of the locals puts it.

But Gavin Hamilton, a forestry worker with plans to become a church minister, invites them to camp in the field behind his house — a lovely old manse he has inherited which is due to be converted into a holiday home for children from the Glasgow slums. He later forbids them from putting up their tents: “I want you to sleep in the house, all of you.”

Marriage proposal

The third-person narrative is largely told from Effie’s point of view. She’s headstrong and feisty, but also plagued by worry and self-doubt. Her hand in marriage has been promised to a family friend 30 years her senior who tried to rape her when she was 15.  Clearly, she does not want to marry him but her options are limited.

This is where Gavin steps into the frame. He’s 10 years older, a devout Christian, well respected by the community, generous to the point of extremism (he’s renowned for once having given his whole pay packet to a tramp) and free from the prejudices that might otherwise turn him off establishing a relationship with Effie.

Of course, the plot is entirely predictable: within a week he’s asked Effie to marry him. Perhaps what is less predictable is Effie’s reaction to this — she is confused and unwilling to accept that the offer has been made with the right intentions.

Fable-like quality

If you think the story sounds a little like a fairytale, you’d be right. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was reading a Scottish version of Cinderella — without the glass slippers.

And while it’s quite a touching story and written in that kind of stripped back prose I generally like, the plot was a little too simple and the moral message it pushes too heavy-handed.

I could be wrong, but it almost felt as if this was a first draft, that Jenkins had sketched out his story arc and he would later go back and flesh it out and perhaps edit scenes that were no longer needed. (There’s a lot of repetition here, mainly about local prejudice, and the main characters aren’t well developed, they’re caricatures more than anything.) I suspect that’s why the manuscript, originally titled The Tinkers, was buried in his drawer and not published during his lifetime.

Fortunately, this hasn’t put me off exploring more of Jenkins’ work, but if you have not read him before this is definitely not the place to start.

1001 books, Author, Book review, Canongate, Fiction, literary fiction, Michel Faber, Publisher, science fiction, Scotland, Setting

‘Under the Skin’ by Michel Faber

Under-the-skin

Fiction – paperback; Canongate; 305 pages; 2000.

This may possibly be the most difficult review I’ve ever had to write. That’s because writing about Michel Faber’s Under the Skin without giving away crucial plot spoilers is nigh on impossible.

This is a novel that is cloaked in secrecy — I’ve yet to come across a review online that gives away the bizarre content or the dramatic ending — and I’m not about to become the first to give it all away. Let me just say that it is quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It’s intriguing and creepy and defies categorisation and the title is uncannily appropriate, because the story does, indeed, get under the skin…

An unconventional lead character

First, let’s meet the main character, Isserley, who is “half Baywatch babe, half little old lady”. She drives up and down the A9 in Scotland in her battered red Toyota Corolla and often picks up hitchhikers along the way — well, actually, she seeks them out, but more on that later. This is how one man she picks up describes her:

Fantastic tits on this one, but God, there wasn’t much of her otherwise. Tiny — like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. How tall would she be? Five foot one, maybe, standing up. […] The rest of her was a funny shape, though. Long skinny arms with big knobbly elbows — no wonder her top was long sleeved. Knobbly wrists too, and big hands. […] Her face had kind of shocked him. It was small and heart-shaped, like an elf in a kiddie’s book, with a perfect little nose and a fantastic big-lipped curvy mouth like a supermodel. But she had puffy cheeks and was wearing the thickest glasses he’d seen in his life: they magnified her eyes so much they looked about twice normal size.

So, now that we know that Isserley looks unconventional, I can tell you about her unconventional job — which is to cruise the main roads of Scotland looking for hitchhikers who are “hunks on legs”. She wants big men, specifically men with muscles, and when she lures them into her car she can’t help “savouring the thought of how superb he’d be once he was naked”.

What happens to these men once they’ve been “caught” — or lured by Isserley’s big bosoms, more accurately — is the crux of the novel. And on that score I’m keeping completely schtum. Sorry.

An “issues” novel

As much as I’m loathe to describe Under the Skin as an “issues” novel, it does contain many ethical, moral and political matters that may well force you to rethink your views on everything from Nature to meat consumption, sexual identity to the notion of mercy. How we view the outsider and our attempts to conform and make sense of the world are also key elements — and to what degree do we judge people by appearance and not substance or character.

While the prose style is not particularly elegant or lyrical,  Faber is very good at describing the beauty of the landscape and the rural sights that Isserley sees while she is on the road.

A luminous moat of rainwater, a swarm of gulls following a seeder around a loamy field, a glimpse of rain two or three mountains away, even a lone oystercatcher flying overhead: any of these could make Isserley half forget what she was on the road for.

And you really get a sense of Isserley’s pain and hardship, and the sacrifices she has made to be successful in her job. She’s a wonderful character — feisty, strong, opinionated and human — and despite her dubious occupation, it’s hard not to feel empathy for her.

While the story swings between psychological thriller and macabre horror, with numerous twists and unexpected plot developments, Faber seems to have one hand firmly on the tiller: nothing is overplayed or gratuitous or even fully explained. He takes you on a ride as exciting as Isserley’s adventures in her beat up old car and somehow makes you think about the world in a completely different way.

Under the Skin — which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize in 2000 is definitely one of the most strange and original novels I’ve ever read. It’s also one of the most thrilling and thought-provoking stories I’ve come across in years — and with all the books I devour, that’s really saying something…

Under the Skin is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Gone Again’ by Doug Johnstone

Gone-again

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 256 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When it comes to high-octane psychological thrillers, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone knows how to deliver. I’ve read two of his novels — Smoke Heads (2011) and Hit & Run (2012) — and thoroughly enjoyed both. His latest novel, Gone Again, is another fine example of his raw, edgy and fast-paced narrative style.

A missing wife

The story, which is set in Edinburgh, revolves around a newspaper photographer, Mark Douglas, whose wife, Lauren, goes missing. Lauren was supposed to pick up their six-year-old son, Nathan, from school, but she never turned up.

Mark is out on assignment — photographing a pod of whales stranded in the waters off Portobello Beach — when Nathan’s school principal calls him to break the news.

At first, Mark thinks Lauren might have got side-tracked at work — she has a high-powered job in a real estate company — and simply forgot. But when she never answers her mobile or responds to her voicemail, Mark begins to suspect that something isn’t quite right. Has she run away? Or has someone done her harm?


The second time she’s disappeared

But this isn’t the first time Lauren has gone missing. Not long after Nathan’s birth, she disappeared for several weeks, which makes Mark wonder if history is merely repeating itself. If he keeps telling Nathan that his mother has simply gone on a work trip, perhaps when she eventually returns he’ll be none the wiser. But how long can you keep lying to an inquisitive six-year-old?

In Mark’s case, pretty much for as long as it takes. His relationship with Nathan is one of the novel’s strengths. In fact, Johnstone captures the joys and frustrations of parenthood so well that it’s easy to think you’re reading a gentle domestic drama — albeit tinged with a generous dose of paranoia.

When things really kick into action — about 50 pages from the end — it comes as quite a shock. The explosive finale, complete with Johnstone’s trademark Tarantino-like violence, is a little crazy but that’s largely a failing of the genre (in which all loose ends need to be tied up in dramatic fashion) rather than the author’s. In other words, it comes with the territory and doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall entertainment value of the novel.

Beautifully controlled reveals

In terms of narrative pacing, Gone Again is exceptionally good — the chapters are short, the writing is tight — but it is the beautifully controlled reveals that make this such a glorious page turner. Johnstone delivers a steady drip feed of information that makes you question Mark’s version of events all along the way — is his marriage with Lauren all that he says it is? What secrets do they have? And why are the police so hesitant to get involved?

I enjoyed the emotionally charged storyline even if I wasn’t entirely convinced by the over-the-top dénouement. But this is a novel filled with moments of genuine tenderness, genuine fear and genuine shock — perfect fodder for those who like their psychological thrillers with a bit of bite to them.

Gone Again will be published in ebook form in the UK tomorrow and paperback on 7 March.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, Jane Harris, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘The Observations’ by Jane Harris

The-Observations

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 544 pages; 2007.

If I was to name a “literary discovery” I made during 2012 it would be British author Jane Harris. I read Gillespie and I back in March and loved it so much it made my top 10 list of books for the year. Her debut novel, The Observations, would have been on that list, too, but I had to narrow down my choices and limiting one book per author seemed a quick and easy way to do that. But there’s not much between these novels — both are delightfully fun reads.

A quirky take on historical fiction

The Observations is set in rural Scotland in 1863 and is narrated by one of the most engaging characters you are ever likely to meet in contemporary literature. Her name is Bessy Buckley — although she has changed it from something else in order to escape her past — and she’s Irish, but has been living in Scotland for four years. (How she came to Scotland and what she has been doing since her arrival are revealed only when Bessy feels comfortable enough to tell you — and that’s a good way into the novel.)

When we first meet Bessy, she is on her way from Glasgow to Edinburgh, where she hopes to find a “new situation” — her last employer, Mr Levy, has died. But she gets diverted enroute and finds herself on a farm known as Castle Haivers, where she meets an intriguing and very beautiful mistress, Arabella Reid, who employs her as an “in and out” girl looking after the house and garden.

But Arabella has strange ways — she also wants Bessy, who can read and write, to keep a journal as a condition of her employment. It is this keeping of the journal that makes The Observations such a quirky take on the traditional maid-and-mistress scenario — through it we learn so much, not only of Bessy’s current life and thought processes, but of Arabella’s weird fascination with the underclass.

An intimate and bawdy voice

The most striking thing about this chunky novel is Bessy’s voice. It’s intimate, bawdy and very honest. She has a wicked sense of humour — for instance, she introduces the stuck-up Reverend Pollock as “Reverend Bollock”, and at a posh dinner party hosted by Arabella she sings a self-composed song “about a man who is afflicted by a severe case of intestinal gas and who is prone to fart in inappropriate places” (hilariously entitled The Wind that Blows down Barrack Street).

She also has a rather mischievous streak that sadly backfires on her in a most alarming way — and it is this turn of events that packs quite a powerful punch. Indeed, for a book that is seemingly a simple tale of a young maid trying to please her employer it is filled with delicious twists and turns that keeps the reader on their toes: you are never quite sure what is going to happen next.

There’s an intriguing undercurrent of menace that runs underneath the storyline (think Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca), but The Observations is mostly a comic tale. Yet Harris balances the humour with moments of poignancy. (Bessy’s back story is particularly tragic — even if she doesn’t realise it — but the sympathy card is never played, which makes it even more sad.)

My only criticism is that the ending is a bit “twee” — all the loose ends are too deftly and neatly tied up — but I can’t stress how much I enjoyed being in Bessy’s lively and entertaining company for the 10 or so days I took to read this. I really can’t wait to see what Harris delivers next.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Hit & Run’ by Doug Johnstone

Hit-and-run

Fiction – paperback; Faber & Faber; 263 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I thoroughly enjoyed Doug Johnstone’s Smokeheads, a high-octane thriller cum black comedy set on the Scottish isle of Islay. His new one, Hit & Run — published last month — is set in Edinburgh and delivers the same kind of fast-paced energy but feels more “real” and is certainly less violent.

Trainee crime reporter in hit and run accident

In the opening chapter, Billy Blackmore, a trainee crime reporter on the local newspaper, is driving home in the early hours of the morning, accompanied by his older brother, Charlie, and his girlfriend, Zoe. All three have been to a party and are tanked up on booze and pills.

When Billy hits something on the road, he stops the car to see what it might be. It turns out to be a well-dressed man — and he’s dead. In a split second, the trio must decide what to do: call the authorities and face the consequences of being drunk behind the wheel, or move the body into a nearby copse and drive off as if nothing has happened?

Charlie, who is a doctor and has much to lose, convinces Billy to choose the latter. But this one decision turns Billy’s life upside down. Not only does he have to live with the guilt, he suddenly finds himself in the thick of the story, when he has to cover it for the local newspaper the next day.

Edinburgh crime lord found dead

When the body turns out to be Frank Whitehouse, Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord, Billy fears for his life. But propped up on uppers, downers and painkillers — he suffered a serious knock to his head during the accident — he manages to get on with the job of reporting the crime and its aftermath.

Out on the beat, mostly under the guidance of his lovely boss, Rose, a middle-aged reporter, he garners information and “colour” about the case the old-fashioned way — before it turns up on Twitter and the internet.

And while the story is largely a dark psychological thriller in which things go from bad to worse for poor old guilt-plagued Billy, it’s also a terrific portrait of traditional print journalism in which legwork and cultivating sources of information reaps rewards.

Missing: a dog called Rebus

It’s also incredibly evocative of Edinburgh, so much so that the city feels like an extra character in the book, particularly the Salisbury Crags, which are a brooding presence throughout. There’s even a nod to Edinburgh-based crime author Ian Rankin — Frank Whitehouse has a dog called Rebus, which has gone missing.

The writing is taut and sparse, the dialogue punchy and realistic, and the narrative runs along at such a cracking pace I read it in one sitting.

Hit & Run has a dark noirish feel to it — helped in part by copious drug use, some sex (in a toilet) and a smattering of violence — but it’s not a gratuitous read. In fact, it’s quite restrained — and I think the book is the better for it, because it feels like an authentic portrayal of a young man going slightly off the rails. More please.

Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, historical fiction, Jane Harris, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Gillespie and I’ by Jane Harris

Gillespie-and-I

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 624 pages; 2012.

One newspaper review described Jane Harris‘s Gillespie and I as “literary crack cocaine” — to which I can only concur. I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun reading a novel. It transports you into a strange world of art, deception, troubled families, disturbed children, grumpy housemaids and caged greenfinches, and then takes you on a rollicking good ride that you don’t want to end.

At more than 600 pages, this book — Harris’s second novel — kept me entertained for a fortnight. I had been reading it for so long, toting it around on public transport, reading it in bed and on lunch breaks, that I felt bereft when I came to the last page.

An elderly lady takes us into her confidence

The tale is narrated by Harriet Baxter, a woman of independent means, who wants to set the record straight about her earlier life in Glasgow in 1888. During this time she befriended a struggling artist called Ned Gillespie and became an almost permanent fixture in his family’s household — until something went very wrong with their relationship.

She interleaves this account with her current situation — it is now 1933, she is rather elderly and living in a mansion block in Bloomsbury, London, with two little greenfinches for company — in which she begins to have doubts that her assistant, Sarah, is as trustworthy as she makes out.

Through Harriet’s eyes, we get to experience her take on the world, both as a young woman and as an old lady. She comes across as being very demure, compassionate and friendly, but beneath it all we get glimpses of her innermost thoughts, her eccentricities, and her rather wicked sense of humour. Here, for instance, is how she describes a “slender young woman” she meets for the first time:

From certain angles, she might have been considered a great beauty. The neck was graceful; the features fine. Her eyes were deep blue, almost violet. But there was a hard quality in her face — and something in the breadth and tilt of her jaw — that (unfortunately) put one in mind of a frying pan.

There are lots more little snipes like this throughout the novel, which is one reason why it is such a joy to read. But it also makes it slightly hard to reconcile the public image of Harriet — a Good Samaritan who helps people whenever she can — with the woman who confides so much to us. As one character says towards the end of the book, “I’m not sure what to think any more. I  don’t know what to think about anything or anyone, including Harriet Baxter”.

A Victorian novel with a 21st century spin

The book takes the best elements of Victorian fiction — idealised portraits of difficult lives, morality, inherent evil and undertones of a sexual nature — and gives it a fresh slant by throwing in some mystery and a courtroom drama. It’s also hugely evocative of Glasgow in 1888 — Harris has clearly done her homework about the International Exhibition that was held there at the time — but less so of London circa 1933.

It’s all wonderfully paced — and plotted — too, so that you never become bored despite the novel’s length. And the overall atmosphere, while quite cheerful on the surface, is actually quite disturbing and chilling underneath. It’s a brilliant, brilliant read.

Gillespie and I has been nominated for this year’s Orange Prize. It deserves to win it.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Doug Johnstone, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting

‘Smokeheads’ by Doug Johnstone

Smokeheads

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 291 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I think it’s fair to say that Visit Scotland will never promote Doug Johnstone‘s Smokeheads, a black comedy set on the isle of Islay, as a must read. The story doesn’t exactly make the “Queen of the Hebrides” sound like an attractive place to go on holiday.

Sure, the scenery might be beautiful — all heather, peat bog and windswept coastlines — and the whisky distilleries fascinating — there are eight in total, each with a rich history — but in Johnstone’s novel the roads are dangerous, the cops are crooked and there’s murder and mayhem at every turn. In fact, this is one of the most exciting psychological thrillers I’ve read in a long time.

The main plot goes something like this: four middle-aged men from Edinburgh, all friends from university, visit Islay for a weekend trip in which they plan to visit several distilleries. They are all mad into their whiskies, especially Adam, who is a true “smokehead” — a fan of Islay malts — with a particular skill in “blind tastings”.

But no sooner have Adam, Ethan, Luke and Roddy arrived on the remote Scottish island than they have a run-in with a local policeman. It seems that Roddy, an investment banker with plenty of cash, cocaine and an attitude to match, has driven his top-of-the-range four-wheel-drive Audi a little too fast for this cop’s liking. While he is let off with a warning, it sets the tone for the rest of the weekend, which slides into a series of incidences, each one more reckless and dangerous than the one before it.

By the time the story draws to a close, just 48 hours after arriving on the island, only two of the party depart Islay relatively unscathed. So much for a fun-filled weekend away!

From the first sentence, Johnstone’s relentlessly paced narrative and easy prose style hooks the reader. Initially, you get lulled into thinking this is going to be a typical weekend lads’ trip away — the pubs, the girls, the hangovers — but then events begin to spiral out of control and things turn very dark very quickly.

The narrative is quite in-your-face in places, by which I mean it’s a little bit gruesome — think Reservoir Dogs meets Trainspotting meets The Wicker Man — and definitely not for the faint-hearted. And while the plot is slightly over the top, this is the type of psychological thriller that ambushes you from behind and refuses to let go. I hungrily devoured it in a matter of days.

But what elevates this novel above your usual run-of-the-mill thrillers is Johnstone’s superb characterisation (with the exception of the rogue cop, who is a bit cartoonish) and the way in which he captures the easy banter between old mates out on the tear.

He also has a certain ability to make even those of us who hate whisky hankering after a dram or two, he writes about it so beautifully…