by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Volume 4 – Issue 2 – Gallimaufry

October 19, 2009 | by Colin Waters
Lesley McDowell

Missy
Chris Hannan
CHATTO AND WINDUS, £12.99
pp304 ISBN 0701180439

This debut novel by award-winning playwright Hannan is about as good as storytelling gets. Missy is the colloquial name for opium in mid-nineteenth century California, and heroine Dol, “flash-girl”, has quite a taste for it. When she heads out for Virginia City, with her fellow girls from Mrs. Liberty’s brothel, largely in search of her alcoholic mother (a Scotswoman called Isobel, hailing from Leith), she comes across a pimp, Pontius, who is trying to hang himself. She saves him but he shows gratitude by forcing her to hide a stolen batch of opium in her rooms. Hannan’s protagonist is both irrepressible and vulnerable. Optimistic but not naive, she is the embodiment in many ways of the ‘wild west’: eager for new experiences while well aware of the brutality of life, she wants a better life for herself, but only once she’s stopped having fun. Hannan’s tale touches on the importance of female friendship, as well as the betrayal of a daughter by her mother, without resorting to easy sentimentality. He also has a great gift for voices, capturing Dol’s use of contemporaneous slang without ever making it obvious or clumsy. A beautifully written debut.


My Epileptic Lurcher
Des Dillon
LUATH PRESS, £12.99
pp280 ISBN 1906307229

Between chapters of My Epileptic Lurcher, the reader finds passages that purport to be the thoughts of a dog written in style which bears a horrible similarity to a kind of convoluted baby-talk. If you can stand these sections, you’ll discover the rest of the book comprises a touching, almost captivating tale of one man and two dogs. Manny Riley has anger problems. We don’t know yet what he was imprisoned for, but we can be sure it was something to do with his temper. His life since prison has taken a turn for the better; he marries the lovely, tolerant, caring Connie and they move out of the city to a small village in the country. When it becomes clear that Connie can’t have children, Manny brings home a puppy, and so begins his love affair with Bailey, he of the book’s title. When another dog is adopted, their family is complete, although Manny continues to have anger issues and the increasingly hostile village necessitates another move. The book’s message is nothing more significant than dogs can make your life a bit better if you love and care properly for them, yet it’s one of the most effortlessly charming books I’ve read in a long time.


Dark Heart: Tales From Edinburgh’s Town Jail
Douglas Skelton
MAINSTREAM, £7.99
pp240 ISBN 1845963091

The history of the Heart of Mid-lothian, the Tolbooth jailhouse on Edinburgh’s High Street, which itself no longer exists, is unsurprisingly a grim and bloody one. Inmates had to pay for their own incarceration (doubly hard if you were incarcerated for debt in the first place) and many were simply forgotten about, left to languish long after their prison terms were completed. Compared to some more brutal punishments of the time – chopping off hands, or ears; whippings; brandings – incarceration may seem like the softer option, but the smell of the place was often enough to terrify potential miscreants. Robert Chambers noted in 1817 just before it was demolished that “there was something about [it] that would have enabled a blindfolded person led into to say it was a jail”. It housed noblemen who were deemed traitors to the crown as well as young girls suspected of being witches, but it was also surprisingly easy to escape from; a favoured method of escape involved dressing in women’s clothing brought in by family or wives. A revealing, if uncomfortably entertaining, glimpse of crueller times, it tracks our long and often dubious attitudes towards law and justice.


The Stranger from Home
Frederic Lindsay
ALLISON AND BUSBY, £19.99
pp288 ISBN 0749080132

This latest crime novel from Glasgow-born Lindsay carries a recommendation from Ian Rankin on the cover, which is nice as Rankin’s international status does get a nod in Lindsay’s story. Detective Inspector Jim Meldrum is divorced from his wife, Carole; somewhat estranged from his daughter, Betty; strained at work by younger guys coming up behind him and senior colleagues who don’t appreciate him. So far, so familiar. Where Lind-say goes into slightly different territory is literally – the early parts of the novel are set in Phoenix, where Betty has settled in marriage with a handsome man she barely knows. When her new husband goes missing, Betty returns home to Edin-burgh, only to be told by Phoenix police that he’s been killed. A short time later, her supposedly dead husband turns up in her local shopping mall. Meanwhile, an arrogant rich businessman (is there any other kind?) doesn’t seem to care that his wife has gone missing, but as she caught him having sex with a neighbour, perhaps it’s not too surprising. Meldrum is an appealing figure in classic cop guise: silent, strong, good on hunches. Lindsay’s prose, if a little clunky at times, keeps the tension tight.


White Cargo
Don Jordan and Michael Walsh
MAINSTREAM, £8.99
pp320 ISBN 1845961935

The horror of the slave trade, its abolition commemorated last year, had a precedent: the seventeenth and eighteenth century enslavement of white British people, mainly orphan or abandoned children, petty criminals, and migrants eager for a new way of life. The authors argue that the overshadowing of this white slave trade has meant a blurring of the real sources of what would happen later “if governments hadn’t found it quite so easy to transport and enslave their own people, would they have taken it a step further and kidnapped black indigenous peoples and transported them across the seas for enslavement? The ease of it all is astonishing; ‘vagabond’ children were causing problems for sixteenth-century London, so the solution, to send them to the New World, was approved by many. Children would be caught up in the street; poverty-stricken rural folk would be swindled out of the last pennies they had. Naturally, it’s the rich and the powerful who spot a chance for easy money – even babies in their cots were shipped abroad, sold into indentured labour, making them, to all intents and purposes, slaves.


A Crime So Monstrous
E. Benjamin Skinner
MAINSTREAM, £9.99
pp381 ISBN 1845963466

When we were all slapping ourselves on the back for the good work William Wilberforce undertook two centuries earlier, perhaps we should have cooled the congratulations. For slavery exists today as much as it did 200 years ago, with something like 12.3 million women and children sold into servitude across the globe; the difference is the plantation owners’ spiritual descendants are somewhat more discrete about their activities. One man dedicated to peeling the lid off their nauseating trade is journalist
E. Benjamin Skinner. In A Crime So Monstrous, Skinner travels the world’s contemporary slave markets and risks his life. What he discovers is simply heartbreaking, whether it’s the Romanian Down’s syndrome girl a Bucharest brothel-keeper attempts to swap for a car, or the smiling Haitian pimp who promises Skinner he can sell him a ten-year-old for $50. One Indian man is condemned to work in a hazardous stone quarry seemingly indefinitely to pay off his father’s debts. The situation is depressing enough for one to wonder whether a nuclear holocaust would be so bad after all. But, no, Skinner’s not having that, and concludes his book with a practical guide to ending this vile trade.


A To B
Gerry McGrath
CARCANET, £9.95
pp93 ISBN 1857548779

A number of things mark out A To B as the work of a young poet. There are several considerations of what poetry is and does – “to observe tiny immensities/with eyes like sharks” – that betray a certain anxiety perhaps. There is also a passing whiff of sentimentality: “It brings knowledge/and understanding that/gentleness somehow endures,/that our lives, sweet breathable/lives, are scent and honey”. Try telling them that in Darfur. But some excellent poems signal McGrath’s promise. Take ‘A Question’. The voice that speaks the lines sees young lovers entwined (as poets are wont to do) and thinks, “May they love each other, easelessly,/without quarter, even if it kills them”. Is this a blessing or a curse? “Alone, you raise a hand up your back/and feel where nails tore flesh last night./Why do you do it?” Why indeed? Perhaps the ambiguity can be resolved through the image of the “liquid/glass” through which the poet views the lovers. “Liquid glass” is a paradox but one that happens, scientifically, to be viable. Perhaps something is true of love, which exists despite (or even because of) the violent passions it arouses. Still, not an easy or attractive thing to contemplate, something McGrath at his fitful best reminds us.


The Atlantic Forest
George Gunn
TWO RAVENS PRESS, £8.99
pp84 ISBN 1906120269

Amusingly, the blurb describes Gunn’s latest collection of poems as “tetchy watercolours”, which is vivid if a little surreal. Gunn himself does-n’t appear to be a happy man if his verse is anything to go by. Several poems reference the ongoing fiasco in Iraq, specifically to chastise “our glorious leaders” and “the necessary inadvertent lie”. ‘Barbarians’ riffs on Cavafy, with Gunn’s Emperor the barbarian now, with his tanks on our lawn while “his air force fills the sky”. Such is his disdain of matters military he even appears to take a pop at Gregory Burke’s Black Watch: “Scottish theatre as yet does not exist/that we are occupied by the consuls/of the ruling powers & our writers/in their prisons & their shadows/walk across the stage of our capital”. The landscape of Gunn’s native Caithness gives him comfort, though with global warming and man’s flagrant failure to do much about it, not so much comfort as it should: “The world can see/can we see the world?” Gunn probes what survives and what doesn’t, of the landscape and of ourselves; One might well finish this glum collection agreeing “how well the world is/when humans are absent”.


Double Or Nothing
Raymond Federman
TWO RAVENS PRESS
pp270 ISBN 1906120207

“Raymond Federman – world renowned author – except in the United Kingdom”. You can sort of see why. British readers, the stereotype runs, are not fans of intellectual games, and the Franco-American’s novel possesses a certain heavy-going playfulness to it. Double Or Nothing is a ‘concrete’ novel, meaning pattern and idea are privileged over character and story to a near-oblique degree. Whereas ‘normal’ books form pictures in your head, the concrete novel forms pictures on the page with its text. But one must note that Double Or Nothing is not merely an experiment for experiment’s sake. There is an autobiographical thrust to his work; a Jewish child growing up in occupied France, he narrowly avoided his parents’ fate – Auschwitz. Reworked to the point of incoherence, his looping tale of his arrival in America and subsequent attempt to write the novel that becomes Double Or Nothing has an instability built-in one can perhaps trace back to that suddenly orphaned child. And yet there is humour in Double Or Nothing, of the sort Beckett would appreciate.

From this Issue

SRB Diary: My Annulled Eyes

by Candia McWilliam

Close But No Cigar

by George Rosie

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