by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

Volume 7 – Issue 4 – Gallimaufry

November 12, 2011 | by Lesley McDowell
Theresa Munoz

PRELUDE TO EVEREST

Ian R. Mitchell & George W. Rodway
LUATH PRESS, £20.00 304PP ISBN 978-1906817749

When a mountaineering expert and a scientist collaborate on a biography, the result is a mix of detailed expeditions and laboratory experiments. Ian R. Mitchell and George W. Rodway’s biography of Alexander Kellas is an enjoyable study of the Aberdeen-born climber and chemist. Despite the fact that Mitchell resides in Scotland and Rodway lives in Utah, a harmonised voice narrates the episodes of Kellas’ studies of high-altitude physiology, his trips to the Himalayas, and his tragic death as the first ‘martyr’ of Everest in 1921. Biography requires a blend of fact and narrative flair, which the authors dutifully provide. They tell of Kellas’ crowded upbringing as one of ten children born to James F. Kellas and his third wife, Mary Mitchell, and his teenage expeditions in the Cairngorms with his brother, Henry. Descriptions of Kellas’ academic career as a chemist at the University College of London and his work at Middlesex College Hospital follows, but the book really takes off when they authors discuss what meant most to Kellas, his Himalayan expeditions which began in 1907 and continued until his untimely heart attack. Glossy pictures, diary excerpts and newspaper clippings serve as supportive documents to Mitchell’s and Rodway’s meticulously researched and intriguing narrative of one of Scotland’s little known adventurers. TM

ACROSS THE BRIDGE

Morag Joss
ALMA BOOKS, £12.99 PP300 ISBN 978-1846881473

Morag Joss has been steadily building up both her reputation and the quality of her writing. This latest novel is a superb psychological narrative that has seen her compared in the US (where it was first published) to Alice Sebold, Alice Munro and William Trevor. Her prose is thoughtful and steady, giving her time to probe her characters’ deeper thoughts and emotions, but Joss also knows well enough, from a background in crime fiction, how to build an intriguing plotline. Ron is a professional driver in need of redemption after serving time for falling asleep at the wheel and accidentally killing several people. Silva is an illegal immigrant who loses both her husband and her child when a bridge collapses. An unnamed woman, pregnant although her new husband who doesn’t want the baby, takes advantage of the bridge disaster to assume a new identity. Set in the Highlands near Inverness, the novel brings together these three individuals and their secrets. Joss teases out their separate stories using different narrative methods. Reminiscent of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter, it is touching without being sentimental, beautifully simple without being obvious. LM

MURMURATIONS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF UNCANNY STORIES ABOUT BIRDS

Nicholas Royle
TWO RAVENS PRESS: £9.99 300PP ISBN 978-1906120597

The mythology and symbolism of birds are the central motifs of Murmurations, an anthology edited by Nicolas Royle and published (appropriately) by Two Ravens Press. ‘Murmurations’ is a term that defines the aerial ballet of starlings during autumnal dusks. Such an arresting image encapsulates the book’s theme: birds are more capable and cunning than we realise. Certainly, in the opening story ‘Swallows Sleep in Winter’ by Adam Marek, the main character Sam is astonished when an enormous group of swallows settle on the riverbank. The swallows become a metaphor for Sam as he ponders whether or not to expand his family. Other stories comment on the relationship between man and bird, as seen in the quasi-horror story ‘The Candling’. A character holds the male peacocks in such high regard that he raises them and alters his bodyto become one. Birds also hold the upper hand (or wing) in Tom Fletcher’s ‘Huginn and Munnin’, a story about two friends who travel to Iceland in search of adventure. Fletcher intelligently weaves the ominous ravens of Norse mythology into this starkly written tale. Daphne du Maurier’s story ‘The Birds’, in which a family finds itself besieged by a huge, malevolent flock, closes the anthology on an ominous note. TM

PORTRAIT OF THE PSYCHIATRIST AS A YOUNG MAN:  THE EARLY WRITING AND WORK OF R. D. LAING 1927–1960

Allan Beveridge
OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, £39.95 PP384 ISBN 978-0199583577

This excellent re-appraisal of the young Laing (he has been vilified for his controversial psychiatric work in the 1960s, which was based on his theories that madness needed to be understood more than explained) is both scholarly and accessible. Beveridge appreciates that ‘we cannot view Laing with an innocent eye’. He was assailed by his own mental problems, including depression, and those who knew him testify to a ‘mercurial’ and difficult character. He didn’t distinguish himself at university but his presence at philosophy clubs showed that his intelligence wasn’t of the kind ever likely to appeal to the establishment. Beveridge also conjures up a picture of an intellectually vibrant time in 1950s Glasgow, which Laing missed when he moved to London. By then he was also a family man with three children, and his alcohol intake was causing worry. Beveridge also traces his influences, the appeal of the Enlightenment’s ‘moral management’ approach to mental illness for him, as well as Freud’s theories. Plato’s view that madness and genius are related is one of the biggest influences on Laing’s approach to comprehending mental health, which led him into dispute with his colleagues. LM

THE HUNTED

Paul Cuddihy
CAPERCAILLIE BOOKS, £8.99 320PP ISBN 978-1906220426

Paul Cuddihy’s novel The Hunted is a sequel to his 2010 debut Saints and Sinners. Both novels focus on the lives of Irish immigrants in nineteenth-century Glasgow, with the fervent Costello family at the centre of both narratives. Cuddihy presents issues he feels are important to the Scots-Irish; Saints and Sinners describes sectarian tensions in Glasgow and The Hunted takes place during the Irish War of Independence of 1919–23. At the heart of the novel is Tom Costello, a competent marksman living in County Donegal. Despite the loss of his cousin during a recent ambush and his terminally ill mother, Tom obeys an order to assassinate a British general in Glasgow. While there he falls for Bernadette, a good-looking member of the local IRA group. Tom’s quest to kill his target is hampered by the fact that the British are aware of his presence, and have commissioned a certain Corporal Harrison to terminate Tom first. Cuddihy’s curt prose is suited for a political thriller; the action sequences are tense and entertaining. Cuddihy also enlivens the narrative with the interwoven perspectives of Tom, Bernadette and Harrison. However, it is difficult to believe the story takes place in post-WW1 Glasgow; Cuddihy’s modern language and lack of historical detail fails to convince that his novel is set in the past. TM

THE GIRL IN THE BUNKER

Tracey S. Rosenberg
CARGO, £9.99 PP221 ISBN 978-0956308351

Rosenberg’s debut novel is an original idea executed with care and assuredness. Her ‘heroine’ is one of Goebbels’ daughters, twelve-year-old Helga, who is caught with her family in Hitler’s bunker during the last days of the Second World War. She is ‘caught’ because although at first she is horribly complicit in the Nazi programme, revelling in her role as the Third Reich’s most famous daughter, she eventually realises she has been lied to: the sound of bombing overhead isn’t the Nazis making preparations for ‘Uncle Adolf’s’ final push to victory, but the beginning of the end. Rosenberg gives an excellent account of a confused young girl’s perspective, and her portrait of Helga’s parents,her deluded and physically frail mother and fanatical and emotionally cold father, is both convincing and compelling. The focus is a little narrow – I wanted Rosenberg to step back a little, give a broader picture of Helga’s surroundings – but that is a small complaint. Cargo is a new publishing venture that took a brave step with the book’s unpalatable subject and should be applauded. I’m not too keen on their typesetting for this title, though; I’m not sure it reflects the quality of the content. LM

MY NAME IS E

Frederick Lightfoot
SANDSTONE PRESS: £8.99 288PP ISBN 1905207743

Frederick Lightfoot’s sixth novel describes the life of a girl growing up deaf in post-World War Two Britain. Abigail Sempie is grade-three deaf and suffers unfair treatment at the hands of her adoptive parents and teachers. Abby’s only solace is that there are two other girls close by who are also profoundly deaf, Judith and Grace. Considering the small population of their town and that they are all the same age, the girls believe they are related, and call themselves sisters. Surprisingly, the narrative is not in Abby’s voice but in Judith’s, her friend who returns to the same town at age twenty-five to enact revenge on those who were cruel to Abigail. Lightfoot’s prose is intense and evocative and successfully captures a female voice. He conveys well the struggles of a town in the wake of a war, and narrow-minded attitudes towards those with disabilities. Some episodes are upsetting and the misery that Abby endures can be unrelenting. Perhaps Lightfoot is only narrating experiences he has heard of through his job. With his background in general and psychiatric nursing, as well as his occupation in running drama workshops for people with learning disabilities and mental health issues, Lightfoot’s novel enlightens his readership on the struggles that some endure. TM

JULES VERNE’S SCOTLAND

Ian Thompson
LUATH PRESS, £16.99 PP256 ISBN 978-1906817374

 

I’m ashamed to admit that I never knew Jules Verne had visited Scotland, or that he wrote several novels based on his love of the country and his visits here. He first came to Scotland in 1859, inspired by a Scottish ancestor of his own on his mother’s side, and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It’s fair to say he wasn’t disappointed by what he saw, even if the poorer aspects of an industrial Glasgow and a rundown Royal Mile shocked this Paris-based bourgeois. Thompson comments with amazement on Verne’s reputed long-term illnesses, as they didn’t prevent him from undertaking the most exhausting daily excursions about both cities, both on this visit when he was an aspiring author, and twenty years later, when he could afford to arrive in style on his own yacht. This account gives a fascinating insight, too, into Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century, the favourite location of Victoria and suddenly much more accessible to visitors with its new railway network and steamers. Thompson also explores Verne’s Scottish novels, The Underground City proving particularly ripe for a new translation and publication with its Callander-set mystery and romantic adventure hero, Jack Ryan. LM

From this Issue

The Real MacLean

by Christopher Whyte

Nobel Thoughts

by Brian Morton

Nights At The Boovies

by Colin Waters

A Bunch of Bananas

by Lesley McDowell

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