Tag Archives: Scottish fiction

Crocodile by Daniel Shand: Doing the best you can

Cover imageBoth the Betty Trask Prize and Awards once had the word romance in there somewhere which put me off a little: not my genre. That’s been long since dropped and given that winners include Strange Heart Beating, Elizabeth is Missing and We Need New Names, I’ve learned to take notice of it. Daniel Shand won the Award in 2016 for his first novel Fallow. His second, Crocodile, is about eleven-year-old Chloe, left with her grandparents for the summer holidays by her chaotic mother who is trying to get herself better.

Chloe’s heard nothing but criticism of her grandparents from Angie. They’ve not seen Chloe since she was an infant but welcome her into their home as best they can. She misses her mother, the evenings wrapped up together in a duvet in front of the TV watching something unsuitable for children, but not the string of boyfriends, the drunken sprees or foraging for food in near-empty cupboards. She’s careful with people, preparing a face for them. She finds her way into a self-proclaimed gang although Ally, Darryl and Chris get up to very little in the way of mischief. As the summer wears on, Chloe settles into her grandparents’ comfortable humdrum life loosening her grip on her determination to go back to her mother. The gang does what kids do until a game of Truth or Dare goes horribly wrong. When her mother turns up, furious to find that Chloe has met her Uncle Bob, she takes her daughter away with an old flame, a trip which ends badly laying bare the cause of Angie’s self-destructive lifestyle.

Shand tells Chloe’s story from her own perspective, wisely avoiding the tricky child narrator technique. She’s ‘the girl’, rarely Chloe, as if she’s distant even from herself. Her character is in stark contrast with the boys who become her friends, her mental state indicated by her catastrophic thinking – a small boy is envisaged flattened on the road, her mother’s boyfriend’s car overturned in a ditch. She’s always on guard, primed for disaster. All of this is deftly handled with a pleasing helping of striking descriptive language:

Men in aprons look up from ledgers and smile when they enter, door chiming, and the girl wonders what kind of storybook planet she’s washed up on

He wants them to like him. The girl shivers, seeing all her own inner workings projected up on the screen of this child

A great heavy summer storm, with the fuming clouds rolling in from the ocean and the air tasting like salt and something tangy

Carefully and intelligently, Shand uncovers the damage suffered by Angie and the effects that damage has had on Chloe despite her mother’s fierce but misguided efforts to protect her. It’s a quietly powerful novel, perceptive and compassionate, and about as far from romance as you can get.

The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan: A touch of the Iain Banks

Cover imageI’m not a fan of dystopian fiction. There’s quite enough of that in the twenty-four-hour news misery cycle playing out every day which seems even more miserable in 2016 than usual – or perhaps that’s just me. The blurb for Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims sounded as if it might have a distinctly dystopian bent but her first novel, The Panopticon, with its bright, sassy, vividly drawn main protagonist, Anais, made such an impression on me that any misgivings had to be overcome. Although that bent is undeniable – an Ice Age has the 2020 world in its grip – Fagan’s tale of a woman, her daughter and an Incomer with roots deeper than he thinks, is so engaging that it becomes a frozen backdrop rather than the novel’s point.

Dylan has had the misfortune to lose both his mother and his beloved grandmother within six months of each other. Born in London, he grew up in a tiny Soho art-house cinema. Now thirty-eight and single, he’s about to be homeless as the bailiffs close in, with only a note from his mother telling him about a caravan waiting for him in Scotland. A city man from his copiously bearded head to his Chelsea-booted toes, Dylan gets himself on a coach and makes his way to Clachan Falls. Once he’s settled in, he comes across a sketchbook which will later explain a great deal about his origins and why his mother has set him up in the most unlikely of circumstances. Woken in the night by the sound of hoovering, he pops out to find his sleepwalking neighbour vacuuming the road, then polishing her windows. The next day he meets Stella, his neighbour’s daughter, who gives him the lowdown on the inhabitants of Ash Lane, from Ida the porn star to the Satan-worshipping stoner. Her mother’s twenty-year-long, on again, off again, affair with Alistair has produced Stella who was once Cael but has decided she’s a girl which presents its own set of problems. When Stella introduces him to the resourceful, determined Constance it’s not long before he’s besotted. Stella’s battle to be recognised as a girl, the revelations about Dylan’s roots and his yearning for Constance all play out against a backdrop of ever-dropping temperatures and occasional news bulletins from a world which seems further and further away.

The vividly poetic Prologue which opens Fagan’s novel sets the tone for some striking descriptive writing along with sharply drawn characters. Both Dylan and Constance are engaging protagonists but it’s Stella who’s the star of the show with her determination to overcome all obstacles, her goth leanings and her precocious intelligence: ‘When grown-ups hear a little dark door creaking in their hearts they turn the telly up’ thinks Stella deciding that she’ll open her own door wide when she hears it creaking. There’s a rich vein of humour running through the novel – ‘And your dad?’ asks Stella ‘My mum didn’t catch his name’ replies Dylan – gently diffusing the dystopian element. While it’s true that the world is off to hell in a handcart with bankers and big business out of control, temperatures plummeting and waves of violent crime reported on the news, it’s subtly done – no heavy-handed polemic here although the end is sobering. Fagan weaves myth and science through her novel, spinning a story of family, friendship and love which put me in mind a little of Iain Banks. I loved it – witty, engrossing and beautifully expressed it’s a worthy successor to The Panopticon.

Rise: Drama in the glens

RiseThis 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.