Scotland’s relationship with the rest of Britain hadn’t been as intensely discussed as it was last year since the Act of Union in1707. This was not only because of the Referendum, but also due to the arrival of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and other events during 2014, such as the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. The concepts of nation and national ‘pride’ were there to be considered and discussed in many forms, and aspects of this, such as Scotland’s often overlooked role in the building of Empire and the construction of Great Britain, were finally being examined, talked about and acknowledged.
Iain Maloney’s debut novel, ‘First Time Solo’, was published against this backdrop, and this adds to the novel’s impact, giving it layers that it may not have revealed even 12 months earlier. Timing and cultural context are crucial to any reading of a novel, it can’t be any other way, but they effect some more notably than others. On the surface ‘First Time Solo’ is about Aberdeenshire farmer’s son, Jack Devine, as he leaves to join the RAF in 1943, but what it reveals says much about Scots and Scotland, both then and now.
For training Jack is sent at first to London, where he meets, among others, fellow Scot, Joe, and Welshman, Terry. They bond over their shared love of jazz, forming their own trio which gives them something to take their mind of what is unfolding in the rest of Europe and which offers some hope of a future once the war is done. However, as their differences become clearer the initial bonds of friendship are tested and eventually break. Maloney gets the banter between the group, and the rest of the prospective pilots spot on, verging between the only recently left behind playground patter to the more explosive matters of politics and nationality between young men to whom a little knowledge is often more dangerous than none at all.
Maloney makes it clear that for all popular history may want to think of those who fought in World War II as being united against a common enemy, the truth is if you put that many young men from different backgrounds together then divisions are bound to reveal themselves. This is a realistic account of national service at the time, when the prospect of not returning home was only too real, and although there is always humour and irreverence on display in the novel it is clear this a defence mechanism used by all the boys to hide real fear and a lack of understanding as to what is ahead of them, and what is expected of them.
I have to admit that ‘First Time Solo’ was always likely appeal to me as it heavily features jazz and Marxism, both of which I have been obsessed with to a greater or lesser degree over the years. As this is the case, I’m going to plump for two pieces of music; versions of jazz classics mentioned in the book. The first is Chet Baker doing ‘Tangerine’ followed by Miles Davis and Charlie Parker playing ‘Night In Tunisia’. Nice…
The music is key to the novel as it not only offer the boys an initial bond, it gives them lives and interests outside the war, and the writing is never better or more exciting than when they are getting ready to play, or when they talk about music. The only sections which come close are those when Jack is learning to fly, the other dream that has brought him to this place and time. His youth and naivety are too soon to be lost, but it is his excitement at the new, as well as his joy for the things he loves, and his compassion for the people he loves, which gives the novel a warm heart and is a welcome balance to the more cynical, or damaged, characters that are to be found.
‘First Time Solo’ appears initially like a boy’s own tale which could be easily lampooned in the manner of ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’; with young men joining up to fight the bosh for King and Country, but, like that show, there is something more subtle going on. Maloney’s, and Jack’s, initial positivity mean that when tragedy does touch upon their lives it is more moving and believable than if it appeared inevitable from the beginning. This is a book which will surprise you when you least expect it.
It is also further reaching than you may initially expect, with questions of class and culture closely examined, as is the concept of loyalty and just what that means on an individual and collective basis. Jack learns that everyone carries their own baggage, even when they don’t realise it, and that you can’t save everyone. As for what the novel says about national identity, it is a timely reminder of how that notion can be abused, and that there are often more important things to consider than where you are from or where you belong, something which can be forgotten.
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Photo credit: The Guardian
Next Month’s Novel: Kei Miller is writer probably best known as a poet rather than a writer of prose. His collection ‘The Cartographer Tries to Map A Way to Zion’ was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize for Literature in 2014, but both his novels, 2008’s ‘The Same Earth’, and next month’s featured novel, ‘The Last Warner Woman’, (written during his time as first a student, then as a teacher of creative writing, at the University of Glasgow), are well worth your attention.
‘The Last Warner Woman’ is set in Miller’s home country of Jamaica, and is a fantastic example of a writer who is a master of style and language, and which touches upon the sort of magical realism that fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez will recognise and delight in.