One of the never ending discussions about books is whether the meaning comes from the reader or the writer. Of course, the answer is both, but where the balance lies is constantly shifting, and often circumstances and situation dictates this as much as the writing itself. Candia McWilliam’s ‘Debatable Land’ is full of rich metaphor and allegory, but reading it again, both during and after recent events surrounding the Scottish Referendum, I started to read things which may or may not have been originally intended, and some which I can guarantee were not.
The novel is set in two places and times. First off we are introduced to an odd collection of travellers. There are three Scots; Alec Dundas and Logan and Elspeth Urquhart, as well as Nick and Sandro, and the siren-like Gabriel, all of whom are on a sailing boat bound for New Zealand from Tahiti. Their boat is the ‘Ardent Spirit’ and the following passage explains why, where Alec discusses his first wife’s drinking:
“She said that, when her hours allowed her, she was happy drinking alone. It was I who made the pain. We were leaking money. Spirits cost more than fuel. It had to be spirits. It is a national obsession with the Scots, to ride the world having taken ardent spirits.”
The book is full of such wonderful and vibrant writing, and is a master class of how to layer prose, and use it to set a tone and tempo; often obscuring meaning as much as expressing it. ‘Debatable Land’ is as thoughtfully crafted as any poem, with such wonderfully arresting imagery and ideas that a second reading is not just desired but required. I doubt I’ll read a better sentence this year than “He thought of death so quickly all it did was give flavour to his wine.” No doubt, some will think it overwritten and purple, but while it is true you have to work hard to discover and understand McWilliam’s intentions, it is well worth the effort.
The book is about belonging, or rather if such a thing really exists, and if not, what ideas of nationality or state actually mean. The ‘debatable lands’ are conceptual as much as actual. Alec has taken to sea as he cannot find peace or settle on land, but it takes going to the other side of the world for him to start to contextualise and understand his relationship to and with Scotland. Another strand of the novel is memory, both individual and collective, and some of the most vibrant passages are when Alec thinks back to his younger life in Edinburgh.
The Edinburgh depicted is similar to that depicted in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, with a lot of architectural history explained as Alec takes us through the streets of both Old Town and New while he thinks about his upbringing and the life he has tried, and failed, to forget.
One of the buildings mentioned is the Camera Obscura, which is all the excuse I need to post something from the band of the same name, and considering the themes of the novel, ‘Let’s Get Out of This Country’ seems the obvious choice. This isn’t just thrown together, you know:
‘Debatable Land’ is reminiscent of Muriel Spark in its style, but the obvious comparison is with Robert Louis Stevenson, especially his ‘South Sea Tales’ (McWilliam admits this up front by quoting from ‘Songs of Travel’ at the beginning of the book). As with RLS, McWilliam looks at Scotland from at home and abroad, and she evokes the atmosphere and of both places beautifully. Edinburgh’s historical streets are lent a real austere, almost Calvinist, feel while the heat in the Pacific is palpable off the page.
In many ways this was the perfect time to revisit ‘Debatable Land’, and if you haven’t read it you really should. Technically, the term relates to the land of the Scottish/English Borders which has been claimed and claimed back over centuries, but McWilliam stretches that to comment on the whole of Scotland. There’s a passage in the novel where Elspeth discusses the relationship between Scotland and England (or ‘the South’, as she puts it, which perhaps refers more to the Tory heartland) which I haven’t been able to get out of my head in recent days, so I’ll leave you with it here:
“There could be a split. People want it. They sing about it. There was the fish, there is the oil. The stupidity of the South has hurt, the tactlessness that has looked like pillage, the willingness to treat the place like plaid, to throw on for its ancient rustic glamour and to throw over puddles to save them from getting their feet dirty.”
That was written in 1994, but could have been written yesterday, 40 years ago, or tomorrow. These lands have been debated for a long time and they will continue to be long into the future, and any vote and the accompanying result won’t stop that.
All of these columns can now be found in one place over at Indelible Ink.
Next Month’s Novel: I’m writing this while aboard one of the last coal-fire puffers in the world (it’s a long story), and it has put me on mind of Neil Munro. He is best remembered for writing the ‘Tales of Para Handy’, all of which took place on a puffer and which were immortalised on TV, but it is his final, I will argue best novel which I’ll look at next month.
‘The New Road’ is a historical murder/mystery, set in the time of the Jacobite rebellion, and it has been compared favourably with both Scott and Stevenson. Munro is an underappreciated writer, and this is an excellent place to start to discover his work.