Sophie Cooke’s 2004 debut novel, ‘The Glass House’, fits comfortably into the fine Scottish literary tradition of portraying dysfunctional families, and uncovering the accompanying secrets and lies. It’s a painful coming of age novel juxtaposed against the beautiful Perthshire countryside, and it’s the terrible reality set against an apparent idyllic life that makes the novel so affecting, that and Cooke’s poetic language.
What sets ‘The Glass House’ apart is that the family in question are decidedly middle class, something rare in Scottish writing outside of an Iain Banks’ novel. Unlike Banks, there is never a sense that things are going to come to some sort of happy, if hard won, ending. From the beginning there is the uneasy sense of inevitable tragedy about to unfold,
The novel is narrated by Vanessa, a fourteen-year-old who has been expelled from her boarding school and so is forced to attend the local comprehensive. From the beginning it is obvious that Vanessa’s ideas of what love and hate are have been distorted by an intense and often abusive upbringing. This is a novel where extremes meet.
Vanessa falls in love with a local boy, Alan McAlpine, and there are many scenes which are as Romantic and imbued with symbolism as anything by Austen or the Bronte’s. Alan offers her the hope of happiness and security, something which she can’t receive at home as her father has left, and she is under the spell of her troubled mother. This relationship is the most complex in the book as Vanessa is regularly ‘punished’, some may say tortured, by her mother, but this makes her crave her approval even more.
Vanessa’s narration is, if not quite dispassionate, certainly disconnected throughout, as if she is an observer in her own life and all that happens to her is actually happening to someone else, as if through the looking glass. There are many dramatic events which she recounts, but as if she is never truly involved, even when physical and psychological pain is being inflicted upon her. It’s as if she lives her life in what Sartre calls Bad Faith, refusing to choose one action or the other, instead letting events move her around. Her desire for the perfect family life has blinded her to reality. The rest of her family shout, scream, fight and flee as Vee continues to hope for better days, convincing herself that things will improve even as the evidence grows that matters can only take a turn for the worse.
Time for a musical interlude, and although there is not a lot of music in the novel, apart from Alan’s alleged love of The Jam and The Ramones, there is a moment when the lyrics are quoted from one song which is playing as Vanessa’s mum conducts an open affair with their neighbour Mr Crawford. The song is ‘Blossom’ by James Taylor, and its melancholic beauty seems the perfect accompaniment to ‘The Glass House’:
If I have made ‘The Glass House’ sound unremittingly bleak, then I have misled you. There is joy to be found, and that comes from Cooke’s use of language, which is staggering at times. On every page you will discover a sentence or phrase that you want to commit to memory and use as your own. The sense of place and the natural world which she manages to convey make what is unfolding even starker. Its tone put me in mind of the end of the film ‘The Wicker Man’ which is all the more terrifying for being set against a glorious sunset. Both settings hold human failing up to even greater inspection, in the cold light of day. ‘The Glass House’ is beautiful, troubling, and ultimately tragic, a reflection of Vanessa’s life, and Cooke’s refusal to give any easy answers or compromise the story is what makes it one of the most engaging novels of the last decade.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: Over the past couple of years I have reviewed books from writers who, while originally from places such as Bulgaria, Manchester, China and Zimbabwe, sit easily in the world of Scottish writing in that their work has added to the depth and breadth of our culture, and have shown that Scotland is, or should be, a country which is inclusive, rather than the alternative.
I remember clearly the first time I picked up a copy of Leila Aboulela’s ‘The Translator’ in an Oxfam bookshop, and it gave me a view of this country and its people which I had never encountered before, and new perspectives are vital if any culture is to better understand itself and its ever evolving nature. It is a pleasure to revisit it, and I hope a few of you read it before next month’s column.
- Leila Aboulela, The Translator (Nov)
- 50th edition of Indelible Ink (Dec)