Inscribed on the Rotunda Monument at Bannockburn are the words ‘You win me, who take me most to heart’. Written by Scottish poet Kathleen Jamie, they evoke, alongside the rest of the verse, a sentiment that moves beyond nationalism; that pulls down fence posts and walls, reaffirming the transient nature of our own relationship with ‘our land’.
Annalena McAfee responds to such a calling in her second novel, Hame, as she sets out to explore the importance of identity, belonging, and the Gaelic concept of dùthchas.
Though Hame proves a departure from the comical and witty exploration of journalism in her first novel The Spoiler, the interplay between past and present is a theme that emerges once more, proving to be equally (if not more) important as we land in the territory of this multi-faceted and sizeable novel. Promoted as a ‘love letter to Scotland’, Hame condenses the country’s geography, history, politics, literary traditions and personas into miniature; with the fictional Isle of Fascaray being the result.
The island is home to Grigor McWatt – a cantankerous Scottish Nationalist poet and unapologetic Anglophobe – and by the novel’s opening he has died after 60 years of secluded island life. Mhairi McPhail, a New Yorker of Scots ancestry, has accepted the job of writing his biography, compiling The Fascaray Compendium – his fastidious account of the island’s history and wildlife – and his poetry, as well as setting up the Grigor McWatt Heritage centre. She arrives on the island with her 9-year old daughter Agnes (a character who deserves considerably more airtime) and immediately begins battling with her Scottish roots and ‘metropolitan misanthropy’.
Little is known about the poet she has travelled over 3000 miles to research, but Mhairi is endlessly driven by her interest in the ‘story of the doomed love of a beguiling girl for an unattainable and much older poet genius; a kind of Bloomsbury-of-the-North subplot’. This subplot may be familiar to some readers, reminiscent of the relationship between George Mackay Brown and 16-year-old Stella Cartwright, the ‘Muse of Rose Street’. Alexander Moffat’s painting Poets’ Pub famously depicts some of the 1960s most recognized Scottish poets and it becomes a centrifugal force within the novel, one that illuminates McAfee’s role as a sort of Frankenstein, piecing together the different traits of these well-known poets to create her own, tortured monster.
Just as McWatt’s character is stitched together from fragments of other poets, so too is his poetry – a motley of translations of work from the likes of Keats, Yeats, Bryon, Frost, and Tennyson. Viewing the process as a means of reverse colonization, McWatt writes that he wanted to take ‘the best of their verse, and by a process that is part linguistic, part alchemical, reimagine it, offer it to [his] people and make it Scotland’s own’. He achieves this, in a sense, though many of the words he chooses would not pass as spoken Scots today. This is a bold move on McAfee’s part, one that cleverly draws the line between the geographical and the literary sense of identity. And as the novel’s true and blighted heroine, Lilias Hogg, sees her life reach the same conclusion as Stella Cartwright’s, McWatt’s translation of Stevie Smith’s poem ‘Not Waving but Drowning’ captures the tragedy of the situation in an entirely new light: ‘Naeby heard her, the deid quine.’
Running alongside McWatt’s poetry, Compendium work, and newspaper columns are Mhairi’s diary entries, providing yet another insight into the island. What should have breathed relatable life into the novel, however, instead fills the pages with tiresome and repetitive flashbacks: ‘This, I remind myself, was my partner’s idea. Or rather my ex-partner’s. Marco has set me up. A trap. And I have walked right into it.’ Mhairi very early on becomes an irksome character, saying things like, ‘I know we can survive in a world without quinoa, arugala and cilantro, but will it be any fun?’ and makes a flippant remark about transgender women following the mispronunciation of ‘Hebrides’ as ‘he-brides’. Moments such as these appear to strive towards a comedic tone but Mhairi never quite finds one. Instead, she is hindered by unnatural dialogue and a progressively dwindling presence in the novel as her diary entries get shorter and shorter, oftentimes meaning she reads more like a character study.
This lack of genuine insight and emotion surfaces too at the end of the novel, where, without giving too much away, the narrative hook diminishes with an underwhelming sigh. As 9-year old Agnes asserts: ‘You know the words, right… Hame? It’s kind of a metaphor’, McAfee’s tendency to tell her readers what they should be thinking is driven home one last time. This is a text with undeniably fantastic source material and intent, but it is at times overwhelmed and flattened out by its fictional reimaginings and retellings. To return to Kathleen Jamie’s poem once more, McAfee’s characters fail to take the country around them to heart; fail to break free from their many entangled layers and step out of the pages in which they are bound.
Rebecca Raeburn has her own book review channel on YouTube, where she films regular videos reviewing books ranging from literary fiction to fantasy, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC018c5YpHQKa138Q-nrIINw/videos. She currently works as an editor for the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust.