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.

1001 books, 20 books of summer (2017), Author, Book review, Fiction, Janice Galloway, literary fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, Vintage

‘The Trick is to Keep Breathing’ by Janice Galloway

The Trick is to Keep Breathing

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 236 pages; 1999.

Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a profoundly disturbing story about one woman’s mental breakdown following the death of her lover.

Written in a series of fragments, often sharp, melancholy or bleakly funny, the book reflects the slow inward collapse of Joy Stone’s world as she struggles to make sense of all around her.

This claustrophobic story, which won the American Academy of the Arts E.M. Forster Award in 1994 and the Mind/Allen Lane Book Award in 1990, is a soul-destroying portrait of what happens to someone when their grief cannot be publicly acknowledged.

As the “other woman”, Joy must mourn in private and keep her thoughts — and her tears — to herself, but such a burden eats away at both her psychological and physical health. Food becomes a punishment tool, rather than a source of sustenance or even medicine, and she develops an eating disorder that leaves her painfully thin.

She also begins to numb herself with drink:

Gin tastes sweet and bitter at the same time, stripping down in clean lines, blooming like an acid flower in the pit of my stomach. I top up the glass till it’s seeping. If I get drunk enough, I won’t go to work tomorrow either. This is cheering and helps me through another mouthful.

As Joy spirals into a deeper and deeper depression, the book’s structure becomes more fragmentary, more fractured. There are diary entries, extracts from magazines, recipes and letters all jostling for position in the narrative. It’s almost as if the reader is immersed in Joy’s brain as her thoughts whirl around in a jumble of confessional anecdotes, painful flashbacks and disjointed thoughts about her present and future. The fine line between sanity and insanity gets increasingly more blurred.

I haven’t read a book so immediately immersive nor as bleak for a long time. There are shades of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in it, particularly in its depiction of the pressures and burdens placed on young women trying to find their rightful place in the world, but it does end on a positive note: Joy forgives herself and comes to understand that survival is something you can learn. The trick is simply to keep breathing.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing is featured in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.

This is my 11th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it Edinburgh way back in 2007 as a souvenir of my trip (I always like to buy books by local authors) but it has shamefully sat in my TBR ever since then. 

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

‘The Jump’ by Doug Johnstone

The_Jump
Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 288 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In recent years, Scottish writer Doug Johnstone has become my go-to author for fast-paced psychological thrillers. I’ve read Smokeheads (2011)Hit & Run (2012) and Gone Again (2013) — all reviewed here — and he even did his Triple Choice Tuesday for me back in 2011. Somehow I missed out on last year’s The Dead Beat — probably because it came out while I was in the throes of part-time study — but this year I made sure not to miss his latest novel, The Jump, which was published in the UK by Faber & Faber last week.

A suicide bridge

The story plays out in the shadow of the Forth Road Bridge, a suspension bridge that spans the Firth of Forth in Scotland. It was from this structure that Ellie’s 15-year-old son jumped and killed himself. Now, still grieving for the loss of her only child, she spots another teenager about to take the plunge. She talks him off the ledge — literally — and takes him home to make sure he’s alright.

But what Ellie doesn’t realise is that things aren’t quite what they seem. Seventeen-year-old Sam seems reluctant to get in touch with his own family, so Ellie hides him away in her son’s old bedroom, not sure whether to tell her husband, Ben, that he’s there. Later, she moves him to their boat on the marina, where it’s unlikely he’ll be found or disturbed.

But then things begin to unravel when she spots bloodstains on Sam’s t-shirt. She begins to wonder if Sam is being straight with her. Is there more to his story than meets the eye? Her secret, often risky, investigations lead to one shocking revelation after another and before long the story is racing along at Formula One pace, and you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. It is, quite frankly a superb — if slightly far-fetched — ride.

An intriguing lead character

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book, aside from the astute plotting and the way in which the narrative is punctuated by one surprise after another, is the character of Ellie. She’s no cardboard cut-out. This is a complex woman, beset by grief, and motivated by the knowledge that she has a second chance to save someone, even if that someone is a complete stranger. She’s strong-willed, with nerves of steel, and I loved her determination and resourcefulness.

Equally, Ben, her husband, is a fascinating character: he’s buried himself deep into suicide conspiracies to help cope with the loss of his son, so everything he says and does is tempered by a mild form of lunacy.

Together, they make a formidable pair, and even though their actions are sometimes slightly dubious — and often criminal — you can’t help but think that such questionable behaviour could be explained by such terrible grief.

A sensitive and mature novel 

While The Jump is ultimately a sensational novel that brims with suspense and danger,  it explores the issue of suicide with great sensitivity. Clearly, Johnstone has done his research — it feels authentic and believable and the mother’s emotions seem spot-on. Even the stresses and stains within the marriage, the different ways that Ben and Ellie have dealt with their grief, elevates the story above the usual run-of-the-mill thriller.

I also like the way that South Queensferry and the waters of the firth have been depicted with faithful and exacting detail, making these places characters in their own right and adding a distinctly Scottish flavour to the book.

I’d argue that this is Johnstone’s most mature work yet — he’s shied away from a big bombastic ending, and left things a little open-ended, which I liked, and he’s reined in some of the over-the-top shenanigans of past efforts. I just want to know when the film rights are going to be sold, because this would make a terrific movie — I can already see Kelly MacDonald and Ewan McGregor in the lead roles!

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.