There can be little argument that contemporary Scottish fiction is Central Belt centric. Most of the tales told come from, and are normally set in, the area dissected and connected by the M8. However that situation is slowly changing and a writer who shows the way, and who has come to be one of my favourites, is Kevin MacNeil.
MacNeil hails from the Isle of Lewis, and as such must have a certain detachment from the Scottish ‘literary scene’, whatever that may be, that is not only physical but also stylistic. I surmise this not from any sense of place, his second novel ‘The Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde’ is set in Edinburgh, but in the writing itself. There seems to be a different pace to both his novels, a dream like-quality that is slightly unsettling to the reader. You know the feeling that there is something going on in the periphery of your vision, just out of sight? That’s the feeling I get reading Kevin MacNeil.
His debut novel was ‘The Stornoway Way’. I recently re-read it for this column, and it’s so much better than I remember. I think I initially read it alongside James Robertson’s ‘The Testament of Gideon Mack’ and unfairly lumped them together as being overly influenced by James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, which I was teaching at the time and which is, in many people’s opinion, Scotland’s literary masterpiece. Having now revisited both later books I will say that those initial thoughts were down to my lazy criticism rather than the works themselves. Both novels, and indeed novelists, are well worth your attention.
I suggest above that MacNeil’s background gives him a view on Scotland that is different to most other Scottish writers. However, his writing, in terms of content, does not completely stand alone. Once again we are introduced to a central character, Robert Stornoway, who is a damaged male, but to reduce this character to such a description would be offensive to the subtlety of the writing and Stornoway’s, admittedly often anaesthetised, intelligence. Describing himself as ‘a loner who pretty much can’t stand himself’, this novel is the story of his life both home and away from the town with which he shares a name, a life which has become one that relies on drugs and particularly drink, another common Scottish theme. Stornoway the man is inextricably linked to Stornoway the place, and the relationship appears to be a destructive one.
The structure of the book is such that the novel is bookended by the appearance of MacNeil himself in an ‘Author’s Note’ and an ‘Acknowledgments’ page which explains his relationship to Robert. In between we get the life of R.Stornoway and it is not always an easy read, but you continue because you come to care for this man whose love of life seems lost. Even when he acts in a way that readers may look upon as beyond reproach he retains sympathy. In this sense he is similar to Morris Magellan from Ron Butlin’s ‘The Sound of My Voice’, a book featured on these pages a couple of month’s ago. Both men find life an increasingly difficult struggle, a feeling that most people can relate to from some point in their lives.
It is in my memory that ‘The Stornoway Way’, when it was first published, seemed to upset a lot of people I knew who had read it. There are many more disturbing and morally ambiguous Scottish novels out there, last month’s featured novel ‘The Bunker Man’ for example. I wonder if setting the novel in Stornoway confounded some readers’ expectations. Perhaps they thought they were going to read a gentler novel, as if heavy drinking and bad behaviour stop at city-limits. Just as readers have certain expectations of writers, they also seem to have them of periods and places. A novel set in contemporary Glasgow is unlikely to be a tale about middle class angst (although that applies to most of modern Scottish literature), and I have a hunch that many equated ‘Stornoway’ with ‘rural idyll’. They were sorely mistaken.
You can tell that MacNeil is also a poet. There is a lyricism in his prose that is unexpected. His love of, and obsession with, language is on every page. While there is plenty of top notch swearing in evidence, it is often unexpected and considered. An example of this can be found in the lead character’s name. R Stornoway can also be read as arse-torn-away. Reading MacNeil’s fiction you get the distinct impression that every word is painstakingly considered. It strikes me that the Scottish novelist that MacNeil can be most justifiably compared to is the Oban raised Alan Warner, yet another outsider in terms of place and prose.
What applies to writing is equally true of music. There is a thriving music scene in the Highlands and Islands which is often ignored. Here are one of the best bands of the last few years, the sadly no-more Astrid:
*SPOILER ALERT* I must make special mention of the final chapter ‘Letter for Kevin, with Permission to Publish’ so if you haven’t yet read the book skip this paragraph. It is one of the most beautifully written pieces of prose that I have read. Even thinking about it brings a tear to my eye. Suicide is a notoriously difficult thing to write about or portray. If you get it wrong it can not only be sensational, but painful to read. MacNeil writes this passage with such poetry and honesty that it means the reader never feels that it is exploitative or distasteful.
Having ignored Kevin MacNeil for too long I’m now catching up with his work and would urge you to do the same. He was the author of one of the best Scottish novels of last year, the aforementioned ‘A Method Actor’s Guide to Jekyll and Hyde’, and you can read what I thought of that by heading here scotswhayhae . Suffice to say it was on my top five books of 2011. But I would also point you in the direction of his excellent poetry, with ‘Love and Death in the Outer Hebrides’ a good place to start.
It seems to me that Scottish writing is expanding its horizons as it looks to redefine what it means to be a writer in Scotland. This has got to be a positive thing. Look at some of the writers examined in this column in the last year and a half; Iain Banks, James Kelman, Suhayl Saadi, Louise Welsh, Alasdair Gray and Janice Galloway to name just a few. Yes there is still a domination of Central Belt dwelling white men writing Scottish fiction, and they include some of the best writers we have, but a change is not just going to come, it has already started.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: Ali Smith is Scotland’s greatest living writer. Discuss. Of course these things are always subjective, but I think that no other writer manages to balance artistry and entertainment as she does. Her short stories are masterpieces, but so far her best work is 2005’s Whitbread winning novel ‘The Accidental’.
Having spent many of these columns writing about novels and novelists who have similar themes and characters, I can honestly say that Smith is like no one else. She appears to be able to do anything, and ‘The Accidental’ is at times funny, shocking and deeply moving. But most of all Smith likes to play, both with the readers and with the language. No other Scottish writer, perhaps with the exception of Alasdair Gray, seems to be having such fun.
Next 5 books:
- Ali Smith The Accidental (May)
- Robin Jenkins The Changeling (Jun)
- Doug Johnstone The Ossians (Jul)
- Alexander Trocchi’s Young Adam.(Aug)
- Alan Spence Way To Go (Sept)