This is the first novel I’ve read by Karen Campbell. Her last, This is Where I Am, appeared on my radar at some stage but I didn’t get around to reading it for some reason. Rise is one of those novels that occupies the middle ground between literary and commercial fiction for me: polished writing coupled with plenty of action. Set against the backdrop of Scottish nationalism in the lead up to last year’s referendum, it has a strong, beautifully expressed sense of place which makes you think about heading for the hills, so to speak.
The novel opens dramatically with Justine desperate to escape Charlie Boy, her abusive boyfriend. She boards the first northbound bus she can find, impulsively getting off after an elusive feeling of recognition when she spies some standing stones ahead. She lands up in the small village of Kilmacarra where she witnesses a hit-and-run accident and reports it anonymously. Meanwhile, Michael is troubled by a smart-talking ghost. He and his wife Hannah have come to Kilmacarra in an attempt to rebuild their lives after her affair. Once a minister, Michael is now a proud SNP councillor who preaches occasionally at the church and lives in the manse his grandfather once owned. When Justine finds him in distress, he offers her a job. Fallen on her feet you might think but there’s a catch: Michael is the father of the young boy badly injured in the accident but Justine dare not reveal who she is, terrified of any possibility of Charlie Boy finding her. Over the course of a few weeks which sees Kilmacarra first grappling with the imminent siting of wind turbines in its beautiful hills then gripped by the findings of an archaeological dig, another drama plays out at the manse: Michael’s behaviour becomes increasingly irrational, and he and Hannah drift apart, one injured son in hospital the other looked after by Justine of whom Hannah is deeply suspicious.
There’s an awful lot going on in Rise: a man in the grips of what he thinks is a demon, a serious accident, the wind turbine controversy, important archaeological finds, a violent pimp on the loose, all building up to a fraught finale. At times it felt a little too dramatic but what saves the novel is Campell’s eye for arresting phrases, her acute characterisation and absorbing storytelling. I thought I’d have trouble with the ghost but it was clear before long what he really was. She’s very funny at times: the Scots have been ‘whining from their grubby teenage bedroom’ about being part of the UK for three hundred years; ’Och, it’s no use. She cannot shag a man called Baldomero’ decides Justine after chatting up an engineer in the pub and the ghost has some hilarious lines. Justine is undoubtedly the star of the show, a smart cookie who has you rooting for her from the start. Wit and a beautifully expressed sense of place are what lifted this novel for me; that and a hefty dose of good old-fashioned storytelling make it an engrossing read.