Volume 6 Issue 2 2010

Volume 11. Issue 3 Editorial'

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Volume 11. Issue 3 Editorial'

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Volume 11. Issue 3 Editorial'

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THE LIFE AND OPINIONS OF MAF THE DOG AND OF HIS FRIEND MARILYN MONROE

Andrew O’Hagan

FABER, £17.99 PP288 ISBN 978-0571215997

Reviewer: Colin Waters

More biographies have been written about Marilyn Monroe, apparently, than any other person to have worked in show business. I’m indebted for that factoid to an essay, ‘Saint Marilyn’, Andrew O’Hagan wrote in 2004. One wonders whether the former Norma Jean Baker is also the most fictionalised character to emerge from that parallel universe Hollywood. O’Hagan adds his stone to a tottering cairn with his fourth novel, The Life And Opinions Of Maf The Dog And Of His Friend Marilyn Monroe, which, as the title broadcasts, is narrated by Monroe’s pet pooch. There’s a certain logic here: with everyone who ever met, slept with or sighed over Monroe having penned a book about her, the dog must be the last one to give his side of the story.

Maf, or to give him his full name Mafia, was a Maltese Terrier, “the aristocrats of the canine world”. He was real and gifted to Monroe by her occasional lover Frank Sinatra, hence the criminal christening, at Christmas 1960. Maf was present then during Monroe’s final two years, until her suicide in August 1962. Monroe was freshly separated from third husband Arthur Miller and living in New York at the start of this period. She was exploring the Method at the Actors Studio and attending the local literati’s boozy soirees.

Although Monroe “had more natural comedy to her than anybody I would ever know,” Maf says, she wanted to be taken seriously, to solidify her sense of her self as a person as much as to crystallise her talent as an actress. In doing so, “she was walking very close to the edge of sanity all the time, manipulating her reality to meet the demands of some terrible, unknowable ideal”. She was drinking, throwing back pills, consulting dubious shrinks: futile efforts to place distance between herself and the memory of her mother whose madness blighted Monroe’s childhood.

Heavy stuff. When you throw in organised crime, the Kennedys and the dubious glamour of an early death, and stew the ingredients in a Hollywood golden era, you see why Monroe is irresistible to authors, conspiracy nuts and historians of gossip. The question is: is a pet dog a suitably weighty point of view to capture this story?

Last year, James Lever scored a hit with Me Cheeta, an amusing and in its final pages touching Hollywood story told by the chimp who played the titular companion of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan. I mention Me Cheeta because its modest success as a novel throws into relief just how deeply, fatally, misconceived is The Life And Opinions Of Maf The Dog And Of His Friend Marilyn Monroe. As a novelistic conceit we can all just about swallow a story told by a sentient dog.

But what if I tell you that the dog is also telepathic? You’re swallowing harder now. The point where I found my eyes rolling almost out of their sockets came with the revelation Maf (and indeed all creatures apparently) can also absorb not only the memories of those he encounters, he also absorbs every book they ever read with total recall apparently. It’s a contrivance too far, so clever it’s stupid.

As he signals with his title O’Hagan is crafting a digressive novel in the mode of The Life And Opinions Of Tristram Shandy, passing judgement on the early Sixties’ hotspots (pop art, the dawn of the teenager, civil rights, the cold war) in Maf’s tart, amusing voice. While animalkind’s psychic gifts are an undoubted gift to a writer who wants his central character to sound like a Newsnight Review panellist (“I always thought Renoir was so overdone: I mean all those wispy strokes, they
gave me a headache with their infinite prettiness”), the implications of the gift are unexamined. Can animals absorb information from each other? (There’s
a Schopenhauer-admiring fly, cats who speak in alexandrines). Why if animals have this ability are they not more evolved than humans? Why don’t they seriously try to communicate with people?

Now you may be thinking to yourself, he’s taking this a bit too seriously, that I am, in fact, a pedant. Perhaps. But the stage upon which the author parades Maf and the odd questions his character raises is not fictional. It’s drawn from the end of Marilyn Monroe’s life, a tragic and squalid period. In the star’s last months she fell apart, claimed by her demons and her addictions. Powerful men took advantage of her frailty. They used her and once she became an embarrassment they played pass-the-parcel with her, her torment ending only with her death by overdose. The story of Maf and of Marilyn make
for an uncomfortable fit – and O’Hagan knows it. Why else end his novel just as Monroe begins the last leg of her descent into dissolution, with Maf watching his mistress on TV singing ‘Happy Birthday’ for JFK? O’Hagan has form on this front. His 2003 novel, Personality, drew heavily on the story of Lena Zavaroni, another painfully cautionary tale whose subject is fame – only once more instead of following the biographical contours of the life that inspired the plot, his heroine survives the anorexia Zavaroni succumbed to.

It’s disappointing as O’Hagan is a gifted writer. He sets a scene marvellously: “There was a neon halo over Times Square. The puddles were lighted pink and the bulbs made a cartoon beauty of Midtown, pulling shadows and poor men out of their alleys. The snow was falling and bright commerce took advantage of the dark, the changes in colour feeling like events, the battle of noises seeming like news. In the middle of all those twinkles, you might wonder if people even had the chance of living their lives wisely.”

The Life And Opinions Of Maf The Dog And Of His Friend Marilyn Monroe fails to survive O’Hagan’s contrivances. He is a talented maker of points and phrases, but these are gifts that aid an essayist and not necessarily a novelist. In ‘Saint Marilyn’, O’Hagan wrote, after encountering Maf’s dog licence at an auction of Marilyn memorabilia , “Right now a person is looking at the license and thinking they grasp the meaning of the twentieth century”. Maf The Dog is a long, offbeat way of disproving your own point.


CALIFORNIA SCHEMIN’: HOW TWO LADS FROM SCOTLAND CONNED THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

Gavin Bain

SIMON AND SCHUSTER, £12.99 PP274 ISBN 978-1847375551

Reviewer: Tom Morton


So, two Dundee art students form a band, and – get this – they’re performing a variety of black music, in American accents. They are Gavin Bain, author of this book, reared until the age of 12 in South Africa, and then mercilessly transplanted to the direst depths of Motherwell; and Billy Boyd, not the hobbit, a larger-than-life sex monster from Arbroath. They go to London, sign a deal with a major record label. And we’re supposed to be impressed.

I mean, this is happening in Dundee, the crucible which gave the world the Average White Band. Which still provides, courtesy of – wait for it – an art lecturer operating under the nom de plume St Andrew, the wittiest, funkiest Tayside rap you will ever hear.

Unless, of course, the unreleased masterworks of Silibil’n’Brains, Bain and Boyd’s doubtful duo, actually provide some competition. I am in no position to judge, not having heard, nor having any great desire to, songs such as ‘C**t’, ‘Spaz Out’ or that great paean to masturbation, ‘Play with Myself’.

What I have exposed myself to is this breathless, cheeky chappy rant from Bain, a man whose memoir, a story of unpleasantness, violence and general liking for the nastinesses of the glamour chase, has apparently impressed Irvine Welsh and Oasis-discoverer Alan McGee, both men with a connoisseur’s eye for the sordid. It’s an easy, short read, provoked by Welsh’s plans to turn this tale into a movie. And it does seem ideal for the budget end of British movie making, a sort of Sex Lives Of The Tattie Eminems. It also purports to be factual, which it unashamedly is not: “Some names and dates have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals” goes the waiver. Really? How many? Which ones?

Bain’s tale, stripped of superfluities, comes down to this: Novelty white rap act performs in American accent, pretends to be American, apparently convinces a management company and Sony BMG it is both commercially viable and genuinely transatlantic, signs deal, does drugs, drink and copious heterosexual sex, splits up without ever being exposed as a fake. The Proclaimers are mentioned, but Goldie Lookin’ Chain, a glaringly obvious Welsh (and more successful) equivalent of S’n’B, are not. And this all happens within the UK, not, as the title suggests, anywhere near California.

The thing is, I’ve never met a single record company person who would give a Gallagher’s curse whether someone’s accent or antecedents were genuine. I’ve never met a successful musician who wasn’t, in some sense, faking it. And at the end of this book, I was wondering if Bain’s venture into prose wasn’t simply an extension of his desperate attempt to gain some, any, kind of exposure, and as full of misdirection and nonsense as his band was.

As for the AWB, they of course produced such a brilliant version of American funk that no one in the States believed they were anything but black until a bunch of peely wally Dundonians turned up and tore apart the charts and concert halls, coast to coast. The story of the Average White Band – which includes all the drugs, triumph, death and disaster anyone could desire – really does deserve proper telling. This tale of Silibil ’n’ Brains tries hard for impact and import, as a movie synopsis would. It fails as a book because really it’s not significant enough, nor does it feel sufficiently true.


THE TEARS THAT MADE THE CLYDE

Carol Craig

ARGYLL PUBLISHING, £8.99 PP320 ISBN 978-1906134471

Reviewer: Alison Miller
As an Orcadian living many years in Glasgow, I often find myself defending the city and its people practically anywhere north, east or south of it, against jibes vilifying the “soap-dodging Weegie, only happy on Giro day”.

Contrast this with the reinvention of Glasgow in recent years, its rebranding as ‘Scotland with style’, ‘Capital of Cool’, and you have a powerful contradiction at the heart of its image. Carol Craig begins her book by taking issue with the newer version. Summarising recent research, she demonstrates convincingly that outside a few streets in the centre, Glasgow remains a city riven with poverty, inequality, violence and shocking levels of ill health, both mental and physical. People die younger in Glasgow than practically anywhere else in Western Europe. Despite interventions, injections of cash, projects set up to tackle the issues, Glasgow has taken up residence at the bottom of many health league tables, outdoing comparable cities such as Manchester and Liverpool.

But what is ‘the Glasgow Effect’? How did it come about? And what can we do about it? In an attempt to address these questions Craig draws on an impressive breadth of research and a wide range of sources. Throughout the book she refers to Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, and agrees with the authors’ findings that increasing inequality impacts negatively on general health. But, she says, here’s the thing: Glasgow today isn’t a more unequal community than many others, yet it continues to top the leader board of social, physical and psychological ill health. Why?

Craig couches her explanation in terms of historically poor relations between the sexes in Glasgow. The chain of consequences goes something like this: the speed of industrialisation along with the greed of industrialists begat low wages and cramped, dark, insanitary tenements, begat men escaping to the pub, begat women and children subjected to deeper poverty, begat more domestic violence and greater physical and verbal abuse of children, begat poorer physical and mental health, begat … eventually the Glasgow we have today. More difficult to explain is why we can’t seem to shake off this endowment. It is as if it’s deep in the bones of the citizenry like a memory of rickets.

Throughout her analysis, Craig writes with great compassion in a clear, coherent style, bringing statistics alive through oral history, and making indigestible chunks of research accessible and comprehensible to a potentially wide readership. But there are pitfalls in choosing anecdotal material to illustrate your theories.

Take the author’s approach to Glasgow’s literature. Arguing against a tendency to see certain novels as expressions of Scottish cultural identity, she strips down Alasdair Gray’s Lanark and work by Janice Galloway until they resemble books found on the ‘Painful Lives’ shelf in Waterstone’s. It is a process surely as reductionist as the one she criticises and which is diminishing of those writers’ achievements.

Sometimes in her efforts to distinguish her approach from that of others, she runs the risk of creating new Us-and-Thems – an aspect of Glasgow’s culture she deplores. Craig’s views condemning what she sees as Scotland’s tall-poppy-scything egalitarianism are well known and she accuses William McIlvanney, in a speech he made urging Scots to resist Thatcherism and hang on to more humane values, of peddling the myth of the Scots’ love of equality. In her view it is pernicious because it prevents us from developing our potential, and essentially dishonest, masking the many hierarchies she identifies. But consider these two appeals to our better nature. First, “You will measure [people] by the extent of their understanding, by the width of their compassion, by the depth of their concern and by the size of their humanity”. And secondly, “… in our day-to-day interactions with everyone … we would do well to act with more kindness, gentleness and love”.

The first comes from McIlvanney’s speech; the second is Craig’s, from the closing paragraph of her book. If we can’t draw on some well in Scotland containing the first set of qualities, where are we to come by the second?

Scotland’s views on Glasgow are far from simple. An earlier review of the book met this response online from an Edinburgh citizen: “I hate glasgow and everything it stands for. As does most of the population of this country who are ripped off to subsidise the scum on the Clyde. Build a wall round Glasgow … given the average life expectancy … it shouldn’t take long before we can remove the wall and bulldoze the ruins”.

Could it be that Glasgow is Scotland’s ‘sink estate of the mind’, the place we send all the undesirable aspects of our national identity? The Tears That Made The Clyde presents as powerful and affecting an argument for radical social change as I have ever read. It’s how we achieve that change that remains, at the end of the book, a series of interrelated Big Questions.

 


DA HAPPIE LAAND

Robert Alan Jamieson

LUATH PRESS, £12.99 PP388 ISBN 9781906817336

Reviewer: Richard Strachan
Da Happie Laand of Shetland-born Robert Alan Jamieson’s fourth novel is the island of New Zetland, off the coast of New Zealand – or is it the original Zetland itself (Zetland is an archaic name for Shetland), a turbulent isle at the northern tip of the British archipelago? Linked by colonialism and empire, the influence of these islands reaches out to affect the lives of several characters in the present day.

Jamieson presents his story as a “found object”, a collection of papers given to him by a bereaved minister, Archibald Nicol, and the narrative occupies several competing and complementary layers. In the first, Nicol has recently encountered a disturbed young man, David Cunningham, who has left behind a diary and an unfinished manuscript about the island of Zetland, written by a nineteenth-century schoolmaster. In the second layer, we follow David on a pilgrimage to Zetland in search of his father, Rod, an Australian immigrant to Scotland who has recently gone missing. Interspersed with David’s account of his search is this nineteenth-century history of the island, with a commentary by Nicol, detailing its Norse origins, its colonisation by the Scots, and its gradual move towards more restricted economic and social systems.

In yet another layer of narrative, we have Nicol’s correspondence with two distant branches of the Cunningham family, one in Miami and the other in New Zetland, including a transcribed interview with an ancient woman who still speaks the original Zetlandic dialect and who sheds light on the ancestry of the missing Rod Cunningham. Cutting between all of these voices, we also have travel accounts from Sir Walter Scott and a young Robert Louis Stevenson, as well as genealogical investigations, personal reminiscences, and official government reports.

The idea of the manuscript as a collection of documents presented for the reader’s interest is not new. It was used effectively in Allan Massie’s recent Evening Of The World trilogy, to give a recent example. The fractured narrative it engenders underlines some of the author’s wider thematic concerns. Chief amongst these is the legacy of colonialism, the wider cross-pollinations of imperialism, and its creation of correspondences (and correspondence) across vast distances of space and time.

Jamieson’s intellectual honesty is such that he refuses to issue a pat condemnation of the past though; he is aware that the imperial project also offered immense opportunities for ordinary people to escape a constricted present, even if this could come at the expense of native peoples and of a sundered sense of belonging. Empires, as they rise and fall, leave a residuum; half-forgotten dialects, sclerotic religious beliefs, family legends, buried pain and anguish. It is the job of those, like the Heritage Society workers in New Zetland, (or like Jamieson himself), to try and structure these archives of memory, in the form of documents and oral histories.

The novel’s other theme, and a source of both its strength and weakness, is the lingering presence of religion as a way of seeking meaning and order in the world. There are two ministers in the novel, the conflicted Rev Nicol, and the pompously assured Rev Pirie on Zetland, but the real generative spring of religious belief
is personal struggle; salvation is attained through suffering and searching, and the results can be both positive and malign. This is significant because, in an age of competing secularism and extremism, it seems strange that religion is rarely seen as a fit subject for contemporary literature. This thematic strength is also a technical and structural weakness though, because David’s initial appearance in the novel, wild, bearded and bound for Jerusalem, means the narrative is weighted towards a revelation that must be significant enough to regenerate any dormant religious feeling in the character. This doesn’t come however, or not in any way that is satisfying. It is the one false note struck in an otherwise persuasive demonstration that a localised focus can illuminate the widest historical truths. Coupled to a quiet and unobtrusive experimentalism it has produced a work of power and originality.

 


AT THE LOCH OF THE GREEN CORRIE

Andrew Greig

QUERCUS £16.99 PP 322, ISBN 9781847249968

Reviewer: Alasdair Macrae
The prose narrative of this book concludes: “What remains is the descent. Put the book aside. The rushing outflow burn, the broken moorland and the ancient bedrock, the darkening sky about Assynt and those bright lochans already passing from sight into memory are what is left to us. Let it be enough. Tired, enriched, unburdened for now, I follow the burn over the bealach and off the page, into where whatever has existed once, exists all the time.” The task has been completed, the illumination has happened, something of a Promised Land has been revealed. The preposition in the title is very specific: something was looked for, something was experienced at the Loch of the Green Corrie.

Some months before the poet Norman MacCaig died in January 1996, Andrew Greig visited him at his flat in Edinburgh. In the course of their conversation it emerged that MacCaig’s favourite place was the Loch of the Green Corrie in Assynt in West Sutherland, the area where he had holidayed every summer for forty years and where he had walked and fished extensively. Knowing that Greig had an interest in fishing, the dying poet invited him to try and catch a trout in his favourite loch. Greig took the invitation as a challenge or a commission and five years later organised an expedition with two old friends. A second visit, on his own, took place in 2008 and the present book is an account of the trips and related matters.

The structure is unusual: after a brief introduction, the bulk of the book follows the four days of the earlier trip and each day is divided into short sections alternating between “cast” and “retrieve”, and the later trip is then described in four chapters. Some poems by MacCaig are situated as marker posts and the book ends with Greig’s own poem (for Norman MacCaig), ‘The Loch of the Green Corrie’. There are two maps, half a dozen photographs, a note on Gaelic pronunciation and a list of reading. Like his previous book Preferred Lies which appeared to be about playing golf, this one appears to be about fishing and MacCaig; both are actually exercises in self-exploration, self-discovery.

Nonetheless, and despite his statement late on that MacCaig “is more the occasion than the subject of the book”, there are many sharp insights into MacCaig’s poetry and a sensitive probing into his relationship with people and places in Assynt. The central metaphor linking MacCaig and Greig as fellow participants in the enterprises of fishing and poetry is that of casting and retrieving in fly-fishing. In relation to writing poems it is reminiscent of the curious Biblical advice: “Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days”. MacCaig, according to himself, seldom wrote poems when he was in Assynt but the experiences he had there germinated later. As with Wordsworth, “The music in my heart I bore, /Long after it was heard no more”. Greig is trying to understand where his own poetry comes from by looking at some aspects of the process in MacCaig. The book keeps opening out into wider dimensions of geological, political, cultural and genealogical shaping, what he calls “transmission”, whether from generation to generation, or the world outside the mind and the world inside the mind.

So, he is writing a series of homages but, sometimes, as I found in Preferred Lies, there is a sort of spiritual aspiration which sounds a bit rhetorical, a bit strained. Sometimes, I am not sure whether he is telling me too much about his illnesses and love-life or too little. I see why he feels that he needs to exclude nothing that matters to him and that the quotidianly personal is as much part of his creative process as cosmic movements but the balance is not always comfortable. The range from the intimate, for example, helping the aged MacCaig fit his hearing-aid, to the notions of Deep Space and Deep Time can be exciting, even moving, and, over all, the book has a largesse of vision which is stimulating. Although it is very centred on the author, the ripples and currents take readers away beyond the personal. It is very much a populated world and Greig’s novelistic eye gives an immediacy to many of the “characters”. Interestingly, apart from MacCaig himself, whose speech and gestures are well caught, the non-literary persons emerge in sharper, fresher focus than the literary figures, such as Sorley MacLean, who are rather predictably described.

By the end of the book, and the quotation at the start of this review manifests this, there is a decided sense that some vital transmissions have occurred, and a larger awareness has been achieved by Andrew Greig and shared with his readers.

 


THE DEATH OF LOMOND FRIEL

Sue Peebles

CHATTO & WINDUS, £12.99 PP336 ISBN 978-0701184308

Reviewer: Jennie Renton
The Death Of Lomond Friel has a low-key plot that draws you in quietly, until you find yourself engaged and caring about what happens to the characters. Their inner worlds are where the real action is, their interacting psychologies the central source of fascination. In this debut novel Sue Peebles shows herself to be a deft wordsmith, grounded, subtle and funny. Hers is the voice of a good listener. It rewards close attention. She has a subtle take on the challenge of gaining self-awareness, showing how hard it can be to dislodge incomprehension or to change behaviour patterns which have outgrown their usefulness. Absurdity besets people’s efforts to reconcile what the world expects with their inner sense of self, and Peebles shows that interior world to be a place haunted by demons.

Funny may seem an odd word to use given that this novel plays out in the aftermath of a stroke that leaves Lomond Friel dumb – conscious, yet trapped in
an uncooperative body. Peebles’ humour comes in at odd angles: the fishmonger who “ran away from sea”; the hospital case conference with “the usually sparse no-man’s-land in the middle of the circle peopled by legs criss-crossing like a pile of pick-up sticks”. The Death Of Lomond Friel contains much practical understanding of life crises, no doubt arising from the author’s own professional experience as a social worker. As with her clever wordplay, witty asides and arresting similes, she uses this delicately and never grandstands.

After the stroke Lomond is able to nod and shake his head, but the yes–no dichotomy is a poor substitute for nuanced response. On the other hand, incapacity means that he is no longer burdened with a sense of guilt towards his three children, twins Joseph and William, and the free-spirited Rosie, a fey soul towards whom he has always felt deeply protective. Layer by layer the Friel relationships are exposed. Like trees and bushes on windswept islands, each individual family member’s emotional profile is shown to have been determined by defence mechanisms adopted as shelter from gales long blown out.

His youthful ambition to write music inspired by bird-song and to build a profession based on his affinity with numbers, which he sees as colours, are among the memories that visit Lomond as he lies in his hospital bed. He recalls the scene when his wife-to-be, Ethel, pulls the wings off his dreams; only gradually do
we come to understand the psychological underpinning of this repressive act. Lomond also remembers Ethel’s death giving birth to Rosie and how his indomitable sister became the family’s mainstay. He dwells on how as a little girl Rosie lost the power of speech. The stream of therapists only makes him think that recovery is an impossibly uphill struggle and Lomond starts to consider whether bath time might present an opportunity for suicide. Surprisingly, in the midst of this withdrawal from life, he makes the discovery that an unexpressed love is reciprocated, a revelation articulated through look and touch alone. There arises a glimmer of desire to hang on in.

Rosie, a successful radio presenter by virtue of her beautiful voice, becomes so distraught at her father’s predicament that she goes awol from her career and flails around for some way she can help him. She decides she will abandon her rather sweet partner to look after him single-handed in the family “summer house”
in Fife, a fisherman’s cottage. Everyone else knows she is too erratic to carry this through and they all tell her so, whether kindly or brusquely. Rosie, infuriating as she is, is not alone in her incapacity to connect with the feelings of others. Peebles has the knack of stimulating empathy for her characters, however selfish, inadequate or dipsomaniac they might be. She sends Rosie on a bumpy journey of self-discovery that confronts her with many home truths about her mother and associated guilt. She swallows the unpalatable news that the brother she has always demonised, fears her reciprocally. The question that hangs in the air is how transformative such insights can ever be.

 


IF IT IS YOUR LIFE

James Kelman

HAMISH HAMILTON, £18.99 PP288 ISBN 978-0241142424

Reviewer: Kevin Macneil

James Kelman’s work is iconic, distinctive and polarising and is often more admired than enjoyed. In his latest collection, If it is your life, the short stories are dark, protracted, meditative, sometimes depressing or even tedious (although that is partly because they so plausibly capture life as it’s experienced by his characters). There is occasional humour, but his is not a joyous, whimsical wit. It’s mordant, with a purposeful incisiveness, rather like Kafka’s or Beckett’s. Kelman’s best work approaches (although this collection never reaches) the strenuous brilliance of those European literary masters.

The opening story ‘Tricky times ahead pal’ could be a sly reference to the experience of reading the book to follow, for this collection is not what you might label an easy read. Tenacious readers, however, will appreciate the questions Kelman’s prose style invites. Why does he write these near-eventless stories in such a slow, intense manner? What does this conundrum-like five-paragraph fragment actually mean? Why does he suddenly shift register right at this point in the narrative? Entreating readers to participate in the large questions posed by an involving text suggests a generous act, a deepening, on the part of a scrupulous author. Kelman does not patronise his readership.

He caustically mocks those who abuse power in a story like ‘as if from nowhere’, in which a hospitalised man who contemplates “the movement of the cancer entity” berates the “corrupt administrators, lawyers and bureaucrats whose debased self-interest enabled the undead not to colonize the world but to enslave it.” In ‘talking about my wife’, Kelman explores the difficulties of managing long-term relationships: “Cath sighed. I sighed as well. But her sighs were significant. Mine were just sighs.” Kelman writes engaged stories, narratives that provide insights into scenes of suffering and injustice. The political edge to these stories is expected but one might also make a case for a spiritual interpretation.

There is an unanticipated (and likely unintentional) kinship with Buddhism in these pages. ‘Life is suffering’ – the Buddha’s First Noble Truth – is the premise behind much of Kelman’s work, for example his Booker-winner How Late it Was, How Late, where a man’s physical blindness contains a symbolic truth. In this collection, ‘A Sour Mystery’ has a narrator ponder, “If one seeks certainty, if one were to seek one fixed truth, one by which we might construct a universe, then here is that one certainty, that one fixed truth: people change.” ‘If it is your life’, the best story in the book, allows us to eavesdrop on the musings of a student heading home to Scotland on the bus. The young man equates egotism with “the worst kind of arrogance”.

In this collection Kelman furthermore compels us to consider what we can do to alleviate suffering. The author utilises his powers of empathy, compassion and mindfulness to create these stories, shedding hard light on cold realities. His characters question everything as they try to make sense of emotional mayhem. There is an inference that nothing is trivial. Characters contemplate the manner in which thoughts collide and stramash and interweave. They seek liberation. Yet many of the characters in this book seem doomed, restricted, impotent – and furiously aware of it. One recalls the Buddha’s words, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger”.

Despite a recurring, rather wearying, defensiveness, Kelman has integrity. He gives lasting voice to the afflicted, the dispossessed, the disenfranchised. In such endeavour there is humanity, decency. Kelman’s best stories allow quiet heroism to shine, a workaday heroism that endures frustration, injustice, mundanity itself.

Iain Crichton Smith said, “There are no ordinary people”. There is nobility in chronicling this truth, if it is your life’s work.

 


OUR TRAGIC UNIVERSE

Scarlett Thomas

CANONGATE, £12.99 PP444 ISBN 978-1847670892

Reviewer: Stephen Phelan
A few months ago, the American writer David Shields publicly renounced the practice of fiction with a book called Reality Hunger: A Manifesto. He drew a lot of attention, and a certain amount of approval, for compiling an exhaustive list of reasons why made-up stories can no longer satisfy the deepest needs of modern readers.

According to Shields, only poems, memoirs, and lyric essays now tell us the truth, while the novel has become a nostalgic form of entertainment.

His argument was pretty compelling, supported as it was with artfully stolen quotations from writers such as VS Naipaul: “If you write a novel, you sit and weave a little narrative … and it’s okay, but it’s of no account.”

Scarlett Thomas seems to be arguing the opposite – that reality itself is defined by fiction. “Life is life,” as she puts it in Our Tragic Universe. “But on the other hand, all we know about it is what exists as narrative.” This is, at least, what her narrator believes, an author, book critic, and creative writing teacher who is drifting toward unhappy middle age in a quiet town on the Devonshire coast.

Paying the bills with three-act mystery novels for teenagers, Meg struggles to write something more literary while worrying that the plot of her own life is hopelessly unoriginal. Fighting with her inert, unimaginative boyfriend – one of those supposedly practical males who think fiction a complete waste of time – she wonders if their relationship could stand “a second act, with all the conflict pushed into act one”. “Maybe his character just needed a little tweaking,” she tells herself. “Or maybe mine did.”

Meanwhile, a book within the book, a mysterious pseudo-scientific text that Meg has been given to review, suggests that the universe has already ended, only to regenerate itself under human energy as a kind of simulation, where we are all the mythic heroes of our own imaginings, free to play out every possible scenario until we achieve whatever conquest we seek. To some, this might seem appealing, or validate the way they already think of themselves.

To Meg, and presumably Thomas, it seems more like imprisonment.

Their question is whether it’s possible to escape the confines of narrative, to resist becoming a fictional character, to live a plotless existence. In attempting
to answer, the book appears to become the “storyless story” that Meg dreams of writing, as she walks her dog, takes up knitting, and engages in conversations with friends, rivals, fellow writers and family members, and especially her new potential lover, a much older local historian, about the various possible solutions to quotidian problems suggested by their own reading.

These idle chats in English country pubs, cafes, and cottages range across the fields of theoretical physics, Buddhist parables, classic Russian literature, and ancient Greek philosophy. “Why does fiction have any emotional effect on us at all,” asks Meg, in the midst of a discussion about the theorems and paradoxes of Godel and Heisenberg, “considering that we know it’s not real?”

Our Tragic Universe is in fact more a series of dialogues than a sequence of events, and perhaps less a novel than one of those “barely disguised essays” which David Shields allowed for in his manifesto as the only kind of fiction worth reading these days. By virtue of her intellect and playfulness, Thomas now seems to belong in the same school (if not quite the same class) as Borges and Kundera, which seems a long way from where she started, among the so-called New Puritans of the early twenty-first century.

That relatively loose and marginal peer group of youngish British writers pledged themselves to plain prose storytelling with a manifesto of their own, swearing against all rhetoric, authorial tricks, and “devices of voice”. Thomas’s sentences are still plain to a fault, and her occasional similes tend to fall flat: “The grey afternoon was curling into evening like a frightened woodlouse.” She hasn’t forgotten her New Puritan commitment to rendering a “recognisable ethical reality”, successfully mooring some pretty abstract and complex concepts in prosaic and domestic modern life.

But where she fails, and this might be deliberate, is in creating any of the aforementioned “emotional effects” that she knows we want and expect from fiction.

For all her workaday anxieties, Meg never seems to exist off the page, although at times she seems to sense this herself. And for all the author’s obvious erudition, the only thing her book actually made me feel was a mild regret that she hadn’t taught any of my English Literature classes as an undergraduate (Thomas is a lecturer at the University of Kent).

While you might come away with some useful material from its surrounding patchwork of ideas, quotes, facts and anecdotes, the core of the story itself seems to implode while you’re reading, and disappears as soon as you finish.

 


SCOTT-LAND – HOW A WRITER INVENTED A NATION

Stuart Kelly

POLYGON, £16.99 PP320 ISBN 978-1846971075

Reviewer: Christopher Harvie
I read Stuart Kelly on Walter Scott on the Edinburgh to Galashiels bus on the A7, which linked both men to the rest of Scotland. Scott died in 1832 and the to-be-rebuilt Waverley line opened in 1849. He had been on the board of Robert Stevenson’s abortive 1815 Glasgow to Berwick line, and the successful act was handled in 1845 by James Hope, lawyer and Catholic convert with his friend John Henry Newman. Railway millions, as much as best-sellers, sustained the Abbotsford that Hope inherited.

Kelly’s strength is on the Scott phenomenon at the moment of the modern. He is lively and accessible, readable in gruelling conditions (see above), and implicitly suggests not just a revival strategy but a rebirth (see below). But the immediate problem is finding Roy Campbell’s ‘bloody horse’ – where are the novels themselves? Kelly is very good at Scott the authorial droll – which, once you read Sartor Resartus, invites comparison with Thomas Carlyle: Kennaquhair twinned with Weissnichtwo. He argues that a cutesy Sterne-ian Sir Walter lives in the authorial jungles of these usually neglected opening chapters: a pre-modern post-modernist, beguiling unreliable narrators.

But the aficionado will still tend to skip the browsers and editors and hit the narrative when our hero is clattering along the high road northwards and about to meet the natives. And – this is the extraordinary thing – they ring true from the beginning: farmers, lawyers, gudewives, beggars, shepherds. They are percussive, demotic, witty. Some short novels – like the underrated Legend Of Montrose – survive on this ear for speech. Speech is navigable, sustained by the demotic, as in Bailie Nicol Jarvie’s sharp defence of the Union in Rob Roy:

“Let ilka ane roose the ford as they find it. I say ‘Let Glasgow flourish!’ Whilk is judiciously and elegantly putten round the toun’s arms by way of byword. Now, since St Mungo catch’d herrings in the Clyde, what was ever like to gar us flourish like the sugar and tobacco trade? Will ony body tell me that, and grumble at the treaty that opened us a road west-away yonder?”

This is masterful Doric, investing the matter-of-fact with subtlety and a language that sings – and sings for both sides, as with the gypsy Meg Merrilees in Guy Mannering:

“Ride your ways, Laird of Ellangowan – This day have you quenched seven smoking hearths – see if the fire in your ain parlour burn the blyther for that.

Ye have riven the thack off seven cottar houses – look if your ain roof-tree stand the faster. – Ye may stable your stirks in the shealings at Derncleugh – See that the hare does not couch on the hearthstone at Ellangowan.”

Scott’s financial downfall seems as up-to-date as that of his own Bank of Scotland. He knew the alphabet-soup of dodgy credit better than the luckless shareholders of RBS and HBOS. Particularly rewarding these days, when the Clarksons have taken over from the Defoes, and the dopey maunderings of Irvine Welsh’s Jockneys have evicted the Bailie’s perjink discourse.

Scott was anyhow an odd sort, ‘gifted’ – an Asperger-like condition? – writing automaton-like in the window of his Castle Street house, his geniality at odds with obtrusive ambition and a political conservatism gone neurotic. There was logic behind the Royal Jaunt in 1822 – Kelly’s big bow-wow bit – given the bloody fracas at George IV’s coronation, poverty spurring revolt in Scotland, and the Wizard’s own ambitions in stage-management, timing, smoke and mirrors. Folk speak to us from the places of his twilight. John Buchan thought The Chronicles Of The Canongate anticipated Turgenev; Chrystal Croftangry’s description of new, empty Castle Treddles matches Buchan’s Dalquharter House in Huntingtower as the memento mori of industrial wealth.

An electronic revolution in reading being imminent, Sir Walter will benefit. Large type, ease and cheapness will come downline to evict the crabbit layout of
the old cheap editions. Hybrid datasticks, discs and downloads will project the voices of his characters, illustrations (Turner’s, for a start), landscape, music from the innumerable operas based on his novels. Scott-Land doesn’t just provoke; it could map out a Scott renaissance. I will read the e-books, crossing Fala, on the Waverley train.

 


THE STARS IN THE BRIGHT SKY

Alan Warner

JONATHAN CAPE, £12.99 PP394, ISBN 9780224071284

Reviewer: Nora Chassler
The Stars In The Bright Sky is a sequel to The Sopranos, which followed a group of super-horny Catholic schoolgirls from a fictionalized Oban to a choir competition in Edinburgh. In the first novel, there were uncountable (and often unaccountable) sex scenes, and doodles of dicks scattered throughout the book. Often, in that earlier novel, I had the feeling – one I also had with Alan Warner’s debut, Morvern Callar – that the lovely lassies were looking back at him and sneering, not entirely happy with how they were being drawn. Which is, of course, to pay Warner a huge compliment: he made them – and I believed in them so completely I thought I knew them better than he did.

Metatextual speculations aside, The Sopranos simply got a bit tiresome. It wasn’t just sex we were inundated with: it was pishing, shitting …wiping, and anything to do with what one of the sisters at their Catholic school might have daintily referred to as the “ladies’ front bottom”. All that said, it was impossible not to like the girls: they were extremely funny and strong. Now, in The Stars In The Bright Sky, Finn, Chell, Manda and Kay are back, less sex-obsessed, and in many ways more real.

The new novel is not only a more empathetic and wiser book, it’s a deeper, braver and more complex one. By eschewing the tacked-on big plotlines of The Sopranos and Morvern – the tear-inducing abortions and the one-with-cancer, the inexplicable flabby dead body and the giant advance for a first novel – Warner allows the bonnie besoms to bloom. This is a snarly group picaresque, a black comedy in which Gatwick airport is like Kafka’s Castle in reverse.

Most of the mild peril and adult situations the girls, the daft lassies, the wee hoors overcome – call them what you will; they call each other everything – are centred on the most absorbing member of the posse, Manda. Mother of “wee Sean”, and the boastful “Practice Manageress” of a hair salon in their hometown,
Manda is utterly infuriating. Backward, homophobic, body-hair-obsessed, judgmental, gluttonous Manda: it’s Manda who loses her passport, and starts the deranged cycle of circling Gatwick, from which we never emerge. With Manda, Warner has set himself a great and noble task, and he succeeds; he somehow manages to write this piggy moron as both sympathetic – and not all that stupid. No mean feat.

Round and round the lasses go, from the Gatwick Village Inn Pub to the Ezzy Dancer Machine in the Game Grid amusement arcade behind McDonald’s, the Hoppa Hotel to the Hilton, all within the terminal – which leaves plenty of room for Warner to shine. He’s famously great with dialogue, but I would argue it’s his elaborately slow, descriptive pace combined with his breathtakingly lax, dead-on evocations of place that really set him apart. A hundred years from now, readers will be able to conjure Gatwick in all its hideous, end-of-an-empire glory. When the lassies alight from a driverless bus “… [they] de-bussed below the open-sided storeys of a car park, its perma-dusk illuminated by strips of fluorescent lighting; the shy, polished wings of occasional parked saloon cars showed on the lower floor and the tannoy of what seemed to be a railway station could be heard garbled among the bus fumes in the distance”.

The fact that the aging Sopranos lament their non-existent narrative makes it all the more real. The interior and vastly monotonous location, the minute attention to detail, both personal (lists of Manda’s toe plasters, shoe by shoe) and architectural, the swamped sense of a dark and overfed culture – all these create a stifling, hilarious, and indelible atmosphere. By the end you’re not sure you’ve ever been anywhere else.

Ultimately, what The Stars In The Bright Sky does is propose a kind of alternative chick-lit. These girls don’t believe the hype, they barely believe in the authority of their creator – and it’s just what makes them ring true.

 


CAINNT NA CAILLEIGE CAILLTE

Alison Lang

UR-SGEUL, £8.99 PP203, ISBN 978-1900901512

 

A GHLAINNE AGUS SGEULACHDAN EILE

Mairi E NicLeòid

 

UR-SGEUL, £6.99 PP71, ISBN 9781900901406

Reviewer: Aonghas Macneacail
First, there was no original, adult, Gaelic fiction, in print, and very little previously written. Then there was Ur Sgeul, launching in 2003 with the publication
of books by Martin MacIntyre and Angus Peter Campbell. Norma MacLeod became the first female novelist to appear, in 2006. Now, there are 24 separate publications (and counting), with one anthology of short stories translated into German. With the exception of MacLeod, and a couple of others, the male voice has dominated, but now two new collections of short stories add lively contributions from the female perspective.

What’s particularly intriguing is that, while Alison Lang and Mairi E NicLeòid draw on different backgrounds, and are stylistically distinctive, their collections echo each other. Both learned Gaelic as adults: Lang from Edinburgh, NicLeòid with the language in her Skye community, and both communicate with natural idiomatic fluency. Both offer fresh perspectives on relationships, and both, intriguingly, adopt the voice of a domestic animal, in Lang’s story, a cat, while NicLeòid explores the life of a sheepdog. Each also examines the malign influence of narrow religious attitudes.

Lang’s Cainnte Na Caileige Caillte (The Lost Girl’s Language) offers twelve stories, ranging from the wolf-reared woman of the title to genocidal West African politics, via a Monica Lewinsky type, to the dystopian possibilities of the digital future. While NicLeòid’s narrative style in Ghlainne Agus Sgeulachdan
Eile (The Glass and Other Stories) has redolence of the traditional tale, her themes and awareness are entirely contemporary: adultery, illegitimacy, allergies, crossword puzzles and lesbianism are not the commonest subjects of Gaelic fiction.

There are obvious differences – these are creative writers, after all. Lang, who claims no Gaelic background, lives in Edinburgh, and speaks entirely in the female voice. She is perhaps the more cosmopolitan in emphasis, her characters comfortably referencing Proust and Zola, though she knows the traditional Gaelic community as well. NicLeòid, who lives in her native Isle of Skye, also writes drama scripts, and readily adopts both male and female perspectives. That her settings tend to be domestic, whether rural or urban, clearly doesn’t constrain her thematically.

There’s a physical difference between these books as well. Of Lang’s dozen stories, three, exceeding thirty pages, head for novella length, whereas NicLeòid’s eight say all they need in a total of seventy pages. Bulk shouldn’t be equated with overload though, nor slowness with undernourishment: each has her way of delivering a richness of subtlety and detail.

What is intriguing about the conjunction of these two writers is the overlap between their themes. By a curious coincidence, Lang’s narrative
in the voice of a crafty cat is echoed by NicLeòid’s glimpse of life from a working dog’s perspective, although the material receives very different treatment: where the cat wittily knows which side its fur is stroked on, the dog traces a working dog’s life with reflections on the relationships that develop with both adult and younger members of the family, and how learning can work both ways.

Equally different in structure and tone are NicLeòid’s first story ‘Trom’, on its own an ambiguous word being literally “heavy” but carrying intimations of pregnancy, and one of Lang’s longer stories, ‘Oidhche gun Urnaigh’ (Night without Prayer). The central momentum driving both stories is the malign effect religiosity can have on individuals and their relationships.

But where ‘Trom’ explores one young woman’s predicament, ‘Oidhche’ weaves two contrasting narratives together in
the character of Diane who observes the church elder Uilleam exiting a massage parlour and who is also suffering sexual abuse at the hands of Aonghas. The other women who feature, elderly upright Oighrig and worldly Rhoda, offer their own kinds of complicity. The fact that
the abuse amounts to rape within a relationship, which the victim chooses not explicitly to identify as such, or consider reporting, is perhaps the most telling detail.

In ‘Trom’, Catriona, carrying a burden of guilt from her sister’s accidental death in childhood, is reluctant to inform pious and unforgiving parents (someone had
to take the blame), or fiancé Tormod, of an unexpected pregnancy. A DIY abortion fails, but exposes her condition. A marriage is arranged, but miscarriage brings more shame. There’s a neat twist to the story which suggests that living with such proscriptive pressures brings deeper, more enduring and disturbing consequences.

Both writers offer a satisfying variety of themes, fleshed out in sharply observed detail. Lang sketches a contemporary version of slave labour in ‘Latha Eile san Fhactaraidh’ (Another Day in the Factory), while showing how many kinds of dissembling can lurk behind the phrase ‘A Dh’innse na Firinn’ (To Tell the Truth). If ‘An Téile’ (The Other) provides a glimpse of the silent power of sexual jealousy, ‘An Dealbh’ (The Portrait) shows that the enduring value of art can, given time, overcome professional jealousy.

Both Lang’s ‘Beul gun Phutan’ (Mouth without Button) and NicLeòid’s ‘An Còmhradh’ (The Conversation) have food as a central motif and relationships as a decidedly visible subtext, in the first case a coming to terms with sibling animosities, in the second how to use a gifted biscuit recipe to purloin the donor’s husband. And, as well as creating a powerfully resonant sense of how people actually think, there’s a nice mischievous wit at work in both stories.

There’s much to enjoy in these fresh new collections. The writers show no fear of changing moods, from the emotionally raw through the whimsical and surreal to suitably citric satire. They know how to hook the reader. Several stories in both collections could be developed into longer works, and if NicLeòid, particularly in
her final story, edges a bit too close to melodrama for comfort, she’s got the vigour of tradition behind her. Both authors have provided enough evidence of their talent to leave us expecting more, but meanwhile, let’s celebrate these eminently nourishing opening instalments

 


THE EXISTENTIAL DETECTIVE

Alice Thompson

TWO RAVENS, £9.99 PP200 ISBN 978-1906120511

Reviewer: Louise Welsh
Robert Louis Stevenson described Edinburgh’s precipitous lands as places where “the detective and the Bible-reader cross upon the stairs”. It’s possible that fewer Bible-readers haunt Edinburgh’s tenements today, but the city supports so many fictional detectives, they must surely be in danger of bumping into each other. Ian Rankin’s John Rebus, Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie, Quentin Jardine’s Bob Skinner, Alexander McCall Smith’s Isabel Dalhousie and now Alice Thompson’s William Blake all tramp the capital’s streets, righting wrongs against the odds.

A cynic might suppose Thompson is making a bid for the commercial triumph that’s blessed these other inventors of Edinburgh detectives, but her sleuth manages to slot into the Edinburgh’s literary tradition and channel the conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction, whilst being as distinct from his predecessors as they are from each other.

Perhaps it helps that Blake (named of course like Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe, Margery Allingham’s Campion and Robert B Parker’s Spenser, after a poet) has located his rundown office in Portobello.

Thompson evokes the sense of a decayed, slightly seedy seaside town repeatedly washed by rain, so successfully she’ll surely dismay Porti homeowners hoping for a hike in house prices. Blake lives alone, as all detectives must, though he was once part of a nuclear family and has an ex-wife and missing daughter to prove it. His quest also starts in a pleasingly noirish manner with the arrival of Dr Adam Verver who is dressed in a shabby brown suit that belies his wealth. Dr Verver’s much younger
wife Louise, who suffers from amnesia, has gone missing. So far, so conventional. Introduce a sultry night club singer, a raven-haired, red-lipped prostitute, a dodgy amusement arcade, some mysterious DVDs – and one might begin to expect all the tedium of an outmoded fairground ride. But Thompson has erected her scaffold of noir conventions all the better to surprise us. This is not the book it initially appears to be.

Like his namesake, Will is prone to visions. Whether these are prophetic, a sign of encroaching mental instability or simply a projection of despair and desire
is unclear. The iconography of his visions, the repeated glimpses they offer of Louise Verver and Blake’s daughter Emily, suggest a hallucinatory logic of little help in the actual world. When Lily, the Chinese girl who feeds seagulls on the beach, tells Blake he “should just get a grip on reality” we can’t help but agree. But of course it’s impossible, reality is too slippery to grasp.

The sands of Portobello shift unpredictably beneath William Blake’s feet. Even when he enters the bastion of stolidity, the National Portrait Gallery, full of tributes to the great and allegedly good of Scotland, he cannot trust his impressions. Blake’s judgement is clogged by misguided loyalties and the despair, angst, alienation and boredom that curse all existentialists.

The novel’s title The Existential Detective invites comparisons to Paul Auster’s crime fiction and the book’s atmosphere is reminiscent of the dislocation and dream-infected landscape that inhabits Auster’s work. But Blake’s self-hatred means that his essential self is the very last person he’d want to locate.

William Blake isn’t entirely unlikable, but his feelings of self-disgust (he was looking after his young daughter when she vanished) and use of prostitutes (of which he is ashamed) makes him difficult to warm to. The third person narrative offers little sense of Blake’s voice, further detaching us from him. The reader never walks Edinburgh’s streets with Blake, seeing them through his eyes. Rather we watch from a distance as he travels the city alone. It’s a testament to Thompson’s writing that this sense of disconnection from the central character adds to the curious mood of the book.

From Secret Squirrel to Burroughs, Bukowski and beyond, hard-boiled crime fiction conventions have been used to parody the genre and as a vehicle to push beyond established boundaries of form and content. Rather than let her knowledge of and affection for the genre confine her, Alice Thompson has bent the detective novel to her own will and produced something rather exciting. The league of Edinburgh detectives is most definitely stronger for the addition of William Blake.

 


THE ROYAL STUARTS – A HISTORY OF THE FAMILY THAT SHAPED BRITAIN

Allan Massie

JONATHAN CAPE, £14.99 PP384, ISBN 978-0224080644

Reviewer: Roderick Graham
There is a common misconception that the history of our Stuart royalty is one of assassination, execution, and violent death set against a background of mistresses, gay lovers, cynicism and incompetence. Allan Massie gives the lie to this version with a fast-paced narrative which wears its learning lightly and deals even-handedly with the parade of Stuarts from 1371 to 1807 – even if I must differ with him on one monarch in particular.

The Stewarts emerge from the mists of Brittany’s salt marshes as stewards to the Counts of Dol at the end of the eleventh century some forty years after the death of Macbeth and the flight of Fleance. Massie calls this story “an agreeable fiction”.

Robert Stewart, son of Marjorie Bruce and Walter Stewart rather than the product of the heated imagination of medieval chroniclers, became Robert II, King of Scotland, in 1371. Massie tells us that “the early Stewarts practised what modern historians have called laissezfaire kingship, leaving for the most part strong local lords to their own devices so long as they did not set themselves up openly against the Crown”. This would eventually lead to instability, which haunted the Stewarts. James I dealt with it unsuccessfully and was murdered by the nobility. Massie treads carefully through the marshland of early politics, guiding our footsteps onto firm ground and providing colour with illustrative quotations from Walter Scott.

Massie isn’t judgmental, even about James III, on whose unpopular regime he gives us a clear rendition of fact. The existence of royal favourites (Robert Cochrane), the diversion of monastic wealth, and the alienation of the nobility leading to his death at the hands of persons unknown – “the king happenit to be slain” – could lead to one conclusion about his character, but Massie refuses to be drawn.

After the glittering reign of James IV and the efficient, if dull reign, of James V, Massie comes to Mary, where I find I disagree with him. He paints a romantic, sanitised picture of this unhappy and wayward queen who was no more than an aristocratic French tourist. Massie claims that she changed the spelling of her name to ‘Stuart’ to ease French understanding, when, in fact, this had been done by Matthew, Earl of Lennox, during his time in France in the 1540s. He absolves Mary of all complicity in Darnley’s murder, and Darnley appears to be guilty of no more than occasional bad manners. Massie continues to fertilise the legend of ‘tragic Mary’ and ‘evil Elizabeth’. This lapse is doubly regrettable in view of his well measured portrait of James VI and I. He treats James’s bisexuality with sense and compassion making clear that James
was bonhomous, learned, and – rare for a Stewart monarch – keen to engage in debate.

This was a complete contrast to his son, Charles I who would brook no argument on any subject, least of all on the royal prerogative. Massie guides us clearly and, mercifully, succinctly, through the phases of civil war and disputes among the ‘godly’. The exile of Charles II is dealt with as the thriller it was, while the internal politics of France and the Netherlands muddy the narrative until Old Rowley’s boisterous return. The fall of his successor James II led to the Stuarts’ exile and a series of lost causes. The greatest of these lost causes was Prince Charles’s invasion of 1745. Massie calls it “ridiculously quixotic” and concludes the book saying that “for all its failure and futility…he remains, along with his great-great-great-grandmother, Mary, Queen of Scots, the best remembered of his glittering and so often unfortunate family”.

The claim of the sub-title it is difficult to maintain. The pre-Marian Stewarts held a fissiparous Scotland together, James VI and I certainly oversaw a successful union of the crowns and Queen Anne was a keen proponent of the Act of Union, but, in these cases the sovereigns reacted to events rather than initiating them. The invasion of 1745 accelerated the destruction of Highland clan society, which would have vanished in the Agrarian and Industrial Revolutions, but that, at least, was due to the action of a misguided Stewart.

Massie’s book, allowing for my reservations on his treatment of Mary, rises above its sub-title and tells the story of the Stuarts with vivacity and clarity. It is almost a justification for the occasional idiocies indulged in by some of the leading characters.