Annalena McAfee sees her second adult novel, Hame, as a love letter to Scotland. But fond as her portrait is, it never quite rings true.
The novel concerns a fish-out-of-water scholar’s attempts to research the life of a cantankerous Hebridean poet, Grigor McWatt. A New Yorker of Canadian and Scottish heritage, Mhairi McPhail comes to the fictitious island of Fascaray to write McWatt’s biography, parts of which are presented to the reader alongside McPhail’s journal entries and McWatt’s poems and island history, The Fascaray Compendium. She serves as a surrogate for the middle-class metropolitan reader, as she wonders how she’ll adapt to life on an island where breakfast will not be ‘a leisurely berry granola with cold-pressed wheatgrass.’ There’s a touch here of Powell & Pressburger’s great cinematic ode to the Hebrides, I Know Where I’m Going, where a young urban sophisticate is disarmed and charmed by island life. For all its kailyard elements, the film has a genuine feel for culture and place, something McAfee never quite achieves.
McWatt’s poetic mission is to translate the English canon into Scots, an act of ‘writing back’ to the dominant culture he calls ‘owersettings’. McAffee has good fun with these. It’s hard not to raise a smile at ‘They fuck ye up, yer maw and paw’ but her version of Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’ is rather off, rendering ‘terrible beauty’ as the couthy ‘unco brawness’. It’s entertaining to see the fictitious McWatt folded into Scottish literary history, as he shares drams and strong opinions with Hugh McDiarmid, Norman McCaig in various Rose Street howffs. McWatt’s inevitable falling out with MacDiarmid is handled well, with McAfee capturing the latter’s withering tone in a letter denouncing the Fascaray poet. For all that, the only fully-rounded character to emerge is that of McWatt’s great love, Lilias. Modelled on George McKay Brown’s lover Stella Cartwright, Lilias is a tragic character who is lusted after by the poets, but rarely recognised for her own intelligence. Her story is the most affecting part of the novel and could easily have been expanded on.
McPhail’s own story is underdeveloped, although this is in part through her own lack of insight and self-awareness as a narrator. Her own obliviousness to her daughter’s problems in adjusting to island life – as well as her failure to share her delight at the natural world – speak to her own neuroses, but McAfee perhaps underplays the dramatic irony that would make her unreliable narrator more compellingly awful. The New York McPhail leaves behind seems to have come from a bad episode of Sex In the City or Girls: while her estranged husband has an affair with his yoga teacher, McPhail takes up with a pretty rock ‘n roll wastrel.
McAfee sets up Farascay as a microcosm of Scottish history, but she rarely goes beyond a lightly fictionalised version of real events. Her habit of presenting potentially fascinating episodes in the island’s history as brief sketches soon becomes frustrating, reaching breaking point in the novel’s final stretch, as seemingly every well-publicised land dispute of recent years is worked into the island’s story, from the proposed Harris super-quarry to the Eigg community buy-out. By the time an American tycoon turns up proposing to build a golf course on the island my eyes had rolled round to the back of my skull. The avarice of Scotland’s land owning classes is crying out for a mordant satire in the vein of Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up! but Hame settles for wry amusement.
The various disputes over land rights are largely lifted from Andy Wightman’s Who Owns Scotland? and The Poor Had No Lawyers, right down to the anecdote in McWatt’s Compendium about a crofter challenging the laird to answer who owned the land before his father’s father and so on. None of this would matter had McAfee had treated the source material imaginatively, but it doesn’t say much for her skills as a novelist that non-fiction accounts such as Wightman’s books or Anthony Baxter’s Trump documentaries are so much more compelling.
While the novel’s ambition is admirable, it suffers from trying to do too much. I wouldn’t want to lose the patchwork of forms that gives the novel much of its novelty and wit, but I do feel that a greater focus on the two central relationships – Mhairi and her daughter, McWatt and Lilias – would have made for a more emotionally engaging read. As a satire on cultural nationalism, Hame falls flat, given that few Scots would share McWatt’s chauvinist views. Too often, McAfee comes late to the debate, reheating tired arguments about language and culture that writers and scholars have long since moved on from. Hame may be a love letter, but it’s to a Scotland which no longer exists.
Stewart Smith recently completed a Scottish literature PhD. His thesis was nominated for the Roy Ross Medal at the Saltire Awards 2016. He is currently a freelance arts journalist for The Herald, The List, The Wire, The List, and The Quietus.