There are a few Scottish novelists I would recommend to any aspiring writers who are looking for inspiration in terms of style and technique. These include A.L Kennedy, James Kelman, Alan Warner and Ali Smith. But top of that list would be Agnes Owens. If you want an example of how to tell stories simply and effectively then this is where Owens excels. Her writing is constructed using short sentences, avoiding florid language or flights of fancy, and her style is reminiscent of Robin Jenkins, and even, at a stretch, Ernest Hemingway. No word is wasted, and this allows the reader direct access to the characters’ thoughts and deeds. You are right there with them.
‘Bad Attitudes’ is a slim volume telling tales from a Glasgow housing scheme, where clashes of personalities within and between households are played out. There are battles of the sexes, ages and even the classes, with individuals’ prejudices and insecurities exposed. Owens characters are complex and believable, understanding that no one is wholly good or bad. It is the arrival of the Dawson family to the estate that begins a dramatic chain of events which show the worst, and best, of human nature.
Owens understands how to write memorable characters. Old Mrs Webb appears at first to be a stereotypical curtain twitcher and busybody, but proves to be more forgiving and understanding than we are led to believe. The matriarch of the Dawsons, Rita, is originally portrayed as someone who will do anything for her family, but this is later brought into question. It is the complexity of human nature that is portrayed, often when resulting in the most base, even animalistic, actions. Owens is not going so far as saying that life is nasty and brutish, only that we should not be surprised that people are capable of terrible deeds, and that it is delusional to think otherwise. To what extent is this nature versus nurture? It’s up to the reader to decide.
If you have never read Owens then you may at first glance find her style unusual as readers are increasingly faced with writers who show off stylistically and linguistically. The problem with such style is that it can often obfuscate meaning and it is wrong to equate a high style, or difficulty, with quality. The bottom line should be the success of the prose, and a good rule of thumb is that the less excess involved the better. Owens’ prose is fighting fit.
For a brief musical interlude, here is another favourite Agnes. This is Agnes Obel from the album ‘Philharmonics’ which is just gorgeous. This is ‘Riverside’:
Although already published with her debut ‘Gentlemen of the West’, Agnes Owens didn’t really come to public attention until she was one of three writers who were published in the 1985 short story collection ‘Lean Tales’. The other two writers were Alasdair Gray and James Kelman, and I hope you’ll have realised by now how highly I rate their work, but it is Owens’ stories and style that stands out. The story ‘Arabella’, which is one of Owens’ earliest, has one of the best openings you’ll encounter:
‘Arabella pushed the pram up the steep path to her cottage. It was hard going since the four dogs inside were a considerable weight.’
This casual whimsy is typical Owens, and can lure the reader into a false sense of security. She displays a sense of humour that is often wicked and unexpected, one that finds levity often in the darkest situations.
In the current issue of the ‘Scottish Review of Books’ (for further info go to http://www.scottishreviewofbooks.org ) they have asked writers and critics for their nominations of writers who should be more widely known. What is particularly interesting is that many of those whose names suggested are woman. These include Elspeth Davie, Jessie Kesson, Lorna Moon, Josephine Tey and Helen B. Cruickshank. Agnes Owens may be a little better known than the above, but not by much, and more because of her association with other Scottish greats than for her own writing. This is something that should be rectified. Last year Polygon published ‘The Completed Short Stories’ and ‘The Complete Novellas’, which includes ‘Bad Attitudes’. If you are thinking about Christmas presents for those readers in your lives then you could do far worse than start with either, or both, of those. For less than a price of a night out you can introduce someone you love to the work of one of Scotland’s greatest living writers.
The books that we deal with in ‘Indelible Ink’ can be bought from the Dear Scotland shop:
Next Month’s Novel: If you know the name of Rodge Glass then it’s probably because of the success of his biography of Alasdair Gray; ‘A Secretary’s Biography’. If you don’t then the likelihood is that you soon will as his latest novel, ‘Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs’ is bound to garner headlines outside of the culture pages.
To let you get ahead of the game next month’s novel goes back to his debut 2005’s ‘No Fireworks’. The story centres on eight days in the life of Abe Stone following the death of his overbearing mother Evelyn, an event which makes him take of stock of his own life. Moving, funny and insightful ‘No Fireworks’ is the perfect introduction to Rodge Glass.
- Rodge Glass No Fireworks (Jan)
- Toni Davidson Scar Culture (Feb)
- John Burnside The Devil’s Footprints (Mar)
- Stuart David Nalda Said (Apr)
- Zoe Strachan Spin Cycle (May)