“I’m into borrowed time now, my mother said on her 70th birthday.”
Among the first clutch of novelistic responses to the Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014, Jenni Daiches’ third novel Borrowed Time is a gentle, memoir-like reckoning of one woman’s life as she approaches both her 70th birthday and polling day. Following the death of husband Tim, with adult children living independent and active lives, Ruth decides to uproot from the family home in Yorkshire, swapping it for the self sufficiency of an isolated railway carriage in the Scottish highlands. In her new situation she ponders the last seven decades of her life and what has led her to make sudden change. Revisiting memories of her own childhood and the raising of her four children, with reflections on several friends and family members who’ve since passed away, Borrowed Time examines personal identity and the changing of relationships over time.
For a novel seeking perspective on a life against the dually-climatic events of a significant birthday and grand constitutional change, the plot is often sprawling, jumping from one tense to another. Omniscient first person narrative in the 1990s suddenly jolts to third tense in the 60s, with frequent asides in-between. Add to that the lack of speech marks and it’s a confusing mix. Frequent repetition is also frustrating, and combined with the stylistically flat, literal delivery of key characteristics of Ruth’s family and friends, a major draw back. Sister Miranda’s glossy hair is mentioned each time she appears; and the names and ages of Ruth’s four children listed at every opportunity, such as “Lucas, aged four.”
As the novel draws to a conclusion, poor Tim retains the introduction “my husband, Tim,” as though the reader might have forgotten this central character. Wine is given its dutiful label – glasses of flat Chablis or nondescript Chardonnay – making one instance of “indifferent wine,” a more appealing glug. Themes are repeated rather than developed, and touched upon shallowly at the expense of shoehorning in more utilitarian biographic details or pleasant enough memories that add nothing to the overall whole. “Tim never travelled in winter without a snow shovel, but it was June.” It’s a jumble sale of a book; a box of collected objects that might sell better stripped down to a matching set, and polished.
But whilst the novel often reads like dutiful memoir, there are moments to enjoy. Where it falls down for repetitive language and lack of robust structure, occasional forays into the past prove entertaining and tender. Ruth, mulling over her advanced age, thinks of her friend Colette’s untimely death in one of the strongest sections of the novel. A life cut short is told through a series of meetings between the two aged friends. Daiches creates successful poignancy in the final diary entry never occurring.
Amidst the tangle of reminiscing, a school dance attended by a teenage Ruth in a dress of green Italian silk, handmade by her grandmother, contains a vulnerable insight into the humility of the character, who blushes at her own spontaneous admission of homemade clothes whilst talking to a nice young man by the soft drinks and sausage rolls. Sections dedicated to the relationship between Ruth and husband Tim, as disordered as they are, bring atmospheric colour and rebellion with dirty-haired student protest marches and hopeful love letters exchanged intermittently in days before mobile phones. When Ruth’s character broadens out from being the witch in the railway carriage, the image she believes, cruelly, the neighbours must hold of her (despite never themselves indicating), the story, bumpy as it is, occasionally turns up riches stemming from the realistic narration.
As Ruth’s birthday approaches and with it the referendum, her self-exploration into personal and national identity draws to a conclusion, linking reflections on her own life to a country deciding its future identity. Rather than strongly advocating for either side, Borrowed Time is an insight into an undecided mindset, documenting conversations around the dinner table as spouses confess contrary voting intentions to others in their family. Ruth ponders whether she feels Scottish, and what constitutes ties to a place without coming to any firm decision, avoiding linking these questions to which box she ticks in the polling booth. Whilst it sometimes feels like the reading experience itself, the Borrowed Time of the title, of Ruth’s elderly years and the lives of others who’ve passed through, Daiches hints that no matter what was to happen following the Independence Referendum, and whichever way her character voted, occasions, like a glass of “indifferent wine,” have a tendency to slip away and should be appreciated in the moment.
Laura Waddell works in publishing as a commissioning editor. Her criticism, fiction and essays have appeared in publications including the Guardian, Independent, 3:AM Magazine, Glasgow Review of Books and Review 31.