Review by Alan Gillespie
James Robertson’s short story collection ‘Republics of the Mind’ presents an eclectic ragbag of voices that are unexpected, unheralded and unhinged. With a shamelessly Scottish outlook, Robertson’s writing delves into the relationships we have with society, with each other and with ourselves. This is an unflashy collection, built on neither sex nor gratuitous violence, but rather a careful and honest portrayal of the way peoples’ minds work when faced with the awkward and uncomfortable truths that daily life brings.
As with all short story collections, there are hits and relative misses, with each individual reader likely to highlight different pieces for admiration. The opening story of the collection, ‘Giraffe’, is a stonker, setting the tone with a vibrant and mischievous tone. Juxtaposing working-class Scotsmen with exotic monkeys and lions in the setting of a safari park, Robertson develops an unlikely yet affectionate relationship between Eck, one of the park keepers, and a dying giraffe called Eilidh. Underlying the story is a theme which recurs throughout the collection, that of power and subservience. Robertson is interested in why humans do what we do, and how external pressures affect our internal motivations. In ‘Giraffe’, Eck is distressed at Eilidh’s suffering, but is unable to do anything about it due to the presence of his boss; the fates of both the park keeper and the giraffe are controlled by others.
Conflicts abound in Robertson’s stories. Another stand-out piece, ‘The Claw’, further develops the theme of power, creating a tender and authentic relationship between a nonagenarian invalid and his HIV-positive grandson. The old man’s mind is ordered and precise, but his body has failed him and he struggles to hold a cup of coffee; the younger man’s body actively functions, but he is being internally attacked by his condition. In this piece Robertson’s voice and observations are sharp and touching; the reader shares the narrator’s admiration has for his ailing grandfather, and envy for the life he has lived.
It may be a matter of personal taste, but the stories that resonate less are the ones that deal more in the abstract world of ideas. Politics and philosophy are never far from the surface in Robertson’s writing, but are best explored through concrete action and characters. Stories which are one step removed from the physical world, such as the title story ‘Republic of the Mind,’ seem less likely to captivate all readers. In such pieces Robertson still develops debate and marbles his writing with tension; however the reading experience is less immediate than in more dynamic stories, such as ‘The Jonah.’
The endings of short stories are always worth examining, as they perhaps best demonstrate a writer’s sense of style and purpose. In ‘Republics of the Mind’, Robertson’s endings are soft and demure; often we are left with a question hanging in our minds, not sure where to land. This allows the reader to access the story and perhaps decide for ourselves what decisions characters have made; this lack of clarity allows us to empathise with the characters and place ourselves in their shoes. Rather than utilising twist-in-the-tale endings that cry ‘ta-dah!’, Robertson prefers to end his stories by stepping gently aside, allowing his characters and readers a quiet moment together before moving on.
The stories in ‘Republics of the Mind’ showcase Robertson’s backlog of published short fiction going back twenty years. They show an admirable level of craft and human insight, with a particularly Scottish perspective permeating the worlds and minds on display. The writing in this collection is sharp and focussed, with enough variation in voice and subject to make each new story an exploration.
‘Republics of the Mind’ is published by Black @ White