Novels by rock and pop musicians are a mixed bag. For every success such as ‘And the Ass Saw the Angel (Nick Cave) or ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive’ (Steve Earle) there’s an unreadable, if admirable, attempt like ‘Tarantula’ (Bob Dylan), or something ludicrous such as ‘The Adventures of Lord Iffy Boatrace’ by legendary swordsman and Iron Maiden screamer Bruce Dickinson. What seems to be a rule is that the best ones are those which stay away from writing about music or the business of show. In recent times artists as varied as Josh Ritter and Louise Wener have had critical success this way, and this is certainly the case with Stuart David’s novel ‘Nalda Said’.

David was once the bassist with Belle and Sebastian before leaving to concentrate on the underrated electronic band Looper, and his writing. ‘Nalda Said’ was his debut novel published in 1999 and it is a beautiful, subtle story, one which is suitably gentle while avoiding the accusations of twee that some may expect from an ex-Belle & Seb. We are taken through events by the unnamed narrator, who can trust no-one, not even we readers, with too much knowledge, including his name, unless we try to discover his secret and steal the thing that makes him special. All he knows about life has been handed down to him in the form of stories by his Aunt Nalda, the woman who brought him up after his father is taken away and his mother leaves.

At first you are led to believe that all is not right with this man with no name; and names, or the lack of them, are important in framing the novel. People and things are described as if by a child, and he talks about ‘the man with pictures on his arms’ the ‘winter lady’ and people who ‘throw things like discs’ at each other in the park. It is clear that this is an outsider, and this is where several of the novel’s dichotomies kick in. Our narrator is clearly an innocent, but one who is paranoid in the extreme so although he needs others to protect him, he will always give into the belief that people are ready to take from him, and this fear becomes a Gollum-like obsession which stops him from forming friendships and relations.

In chapter seven he addresses what readers will have been thinking from the outset, when he shows previously unseen self awareness by asking:

‘I wonder if you’ve got to thinking yet that I might be lunatic, or even maybe mad, with all my talk about waiting and all my fear about people and such’

This is a key chapter in the book as it becomes clear that it is nurture rather than nature which has shaped our hero’s life so far. It also marks the point in the book where he starts to confide more in the reader, and at the same time he decides he can do so to his new found acquaintances.

He gets a job tending the gardens of a hospital, something for which he has obvious talent, and meets Elizabeth, Frank and, most importantly, Marie.  He lets his guard down enough to not only learn their names, but to allow himself to be named Reynard, as he reminds Marie of a fox. What David does brilliantly is to convey the turmoil that is going on in Reynard’s mind through internal monologue, while everyone who deals with him either patronises or underestimates him, even his three friends. This is believable, and perhaps understandable, as this almost mute man, who feels himself that he cannot raise a smile, is viewed by others as readers did in the first six chapters. But he finds friendship and even love, one which resides in the ‘high heart’ rather than the ‘low heart’ which Aunt Nalda warned him so clearly about.

The central relationship in the novel is between Reynard and Marie, and despite their growing close you can’t shift the feeling that this contentment will only be fleeting unless he changes his belief system. In a sense he finds himself in a tug-of-war between Marie and the long gone figure of Nalda. He needs to lose his faith to set himself free.

This month’s musical interludes are a pleasure to post. If you are a fan of Belle and Sebastian then perhaps you also believe that Stuart David was part of the ‘classic’ line-up who recorded ‘Tigermilk’, ‘If You’re Feeling Sinister’ and ‘The Boy with the Arab Strap’, a run of three albums that few can match. When you throw in the EP’s from that period, including the majestic ‘Lazy Line Painter Jane’, then you can see why for many, including me, they were simply the best band around. Here are a couple of examples of that fine work:

David then went on to form Looper who made the brilliant 1999 album ‘Up A Tree’, something which every home should have. From that album this is ‘The Ballad of Ray Suzuki’:

As much as I love this music, it doesn’t matter to me that Stuart David is also a musician of note. All that does is that ‘Nalda Said’ stands on its own as a compelling, and ultimately heartbreakingly, melancholic novel. The only other Scottish writers I could imagine producing such a work are Robin Jenkins or Ali Smith as ‘Nalda Said’ shares their sense of an unsettling gentle surrealism married to a recognisable reality.

‘Nalda Said’ is about the importance of those lessons learned in childhood, and how these formative years can affect people for the rest of their lives. Reynard’s childhood, which for various reasons was one of arrested development, has destroyed any hope of future happiness as long as he continues to believe Nalda’s stories were true. The tale is ultimately tragic as Reynard waits for the miracle which he was promised.

Alistair

Further thoughts on Scottish books, film, music, comedy, theatre and the like can be found at scotswhayhae which now has a Facebook home.

The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:

Next Month’s Novel: Zoe Strachan received critical acclaim for last year’s novel ‘Ever Fallen in Love’ and this reminded me how much I loved her 1994 novel ‘Spin Cycle’ which is next month’s selection.

Set in and around a Glasgow laundrette, ‘Spin Cycle’ focuses on the lives and secrets of Agnes, Myrna and Siobhan all of whom work there. It is a book which has an appealing dark side as Strachan tells tales of lives which are recognisable yet unsettling and intriguing.

  1. Zoe Strachan Spin Cycle (May)
  2. Ewan Morrison Swung (Jun)
  3. Martin Millar Lux the Poet (Jul)
  4. Andrew Raymond Drennan The Immaculate Heart (Aug)
  5. Ajay Close Forspoken (Sep)

 

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