4 September 2013
Prologue and Part 1
This novel is two things at once. Mainly, it’s a fairly conventional narrative, set in Scotland, that takes in a retrospective of the vaguely unsatisfying life of 50-something Mike. There’s a framing device, to do with the difficulty he is having writing an introduction to the catalogue for a posthumous exhibition of the work of his father, a much better-known (because much better) photographer than Mike himself. In Part 1, almost the first quarter of the novel, he looks back over the first quarter of his life beyond the age of about nine. So the background is late 1960s and, in much more detail, the events in Scotland and the rest of Britain during the 1970s. Ok. But James Robertson is also interested in stories, and this gives him a licence to send things off on tangents that are often far more engaging than the lost and drifting Mike.
There’s another framing device, and we don’t understand it until we reach a kind of epilogue that matches the prologue. These are printed in italics, written in the second person, and seem to have nothing at all to do with Mike beyond a similar interest in the physical presence of Scotland. But a detail in the epilogue lets us know that the consciousness is that of a kind of tramp – kind of, because he keeps himself scrupulously clean and is quietly courteous towards anyone he encounters – whom Mike had met at the age of nine. It had been both less than a meeting, and more: Mike’s father wanted a photograph of the family, and the tramp had obliged. The end. Except…
…he had also given Mike a little stone, a pebble. This seems insignificant, and we forget about it until the epilogue. Here, we discover that he collects stones and gives one to every child he meets, not caring whether they keep them or throw them away. They are all parts of a trail he has left behind, and he knows nothing about any of them. Ok. But that photograph he took is another little pebble, because it kick-starts the novel. It’s the only one in the planned exhibition not taken by Mike’s father and, in that way that photographs often have in novels, it opens up a narrative. It forms the basis of several chapters to do with his parents’ unsatisfactory marriage and the unsatisfactory relationship he has with each of them following their divorce. Robertson doesn’t make a direct link between the photograph and the pebble because he doesn’t need to: the stories of our interlocking lives are full of details playing important parts we might never come to understand.
A lot of Mike’s story emerges during a long drinking session he shares with a former lover of his father’s that he, Mike, got to know in Edinburgh while he was at art college. She is Jean, and she runs an ad hoc salon in her house. Her main selling-points are her frankness and her ability to tell a good story, and she finally gets him to see what he’d always known: he isn’t as good a photographer as his father. Otherwise, his teens and twenties follow the history of Scotland: as he discovers his own sexuality – Robertson has decided to make him gay, so we get several Alan Hollinghurst moments – Scotland fails to discover its destiny. By 1979, the idea of devolution is dead.
There are more of the familiar details of elections and political manoeuvrings than I particularly care to be reminded of, and I wonder how many other non-Scots can be as fascinated by them as Mike is. Perhaps Robertson wonders too, as he varies things with two of Jean’s stories in the style of folk-tales (a technique that reminds me of A S Byatt’s in The Children’s Book, published the previous year) to offer a different take. In one, a listener in a hurry is sent to ever more aged women – the last little more than the mouth in a box that forms the subtitle of Part 1 – to find out that he can’t know the end of the story before he understands the beginning. Deep. In another, an archetypal ‘Jack’ goes to the end of the earth to find its edge, almost losing his soul in the process. Or does he? How can he know? How can we?
To help us along, Robertson has Mike and Jean talking about one of the men who used to come to her ad hoc soirees – who, she tells him, turned out to be an MI5 spook. She tells Mike how she had eventually thrown him out, but not before he had told her about his own view of independence for Scotland: ‘We might just drift into it without meaning to.’ As Jean says, sagely, ‘We’re on a journey and sooner or later we’ll get to wherever we’re going.’ Is this tiresome? The stories are engaging enough, but are they saying anything that isn’t already obvious about the mythologising of a country or of an individual in it? You decide.
There are plenty of other things, particularly about Mike’s parents and his problematic relationships with them both. They had married only because she was pregnant with him, and it was a disaster. She is soon disgusted by the womanising her new husband had never intended to give up; he lives the life of a bachelor, doing what he likes because his undoubted talent allows him to. Mike hero-worships this man, Angus, because he gets exactly the sorts of treats from him that his mother resents so much. She has to bring him up when he isn’t at school, but he’s the one who takes him for illicit trips to the movies and, after the divorce, lets him stay at the cottage on the north coast with him and whoever he’s shagging just now. Angus rations this: he is there for four weeks each summer, while Mike spends only the middle two. This nearly always makes the women jealous. In fact, Angus’s other main function in the novel – in addition to screwing up Mike’s self-esteem – is screwing up women.
There’s one other thing. Mike has decided to live in the cottage on the bleak coast since his father’s death two or three years before. He spends his time taking landscape photographs that seem to say nothing interesting – he comes close to admitting this to Jean – but, two or three times a week, there’s Murdo. He’s the sort of jack-of-all-trades found in any isolated community, and has never had a sexual relationship in his life. Until, as Robertson coyly reveals, very slowly, he gets a quiet thing going with Mike. When it happens – and it’s only made explicit near the end of Part 1 – it sounds like a half-hour bout of vigorous sex, and that will very much do as far as Murdo is concerned. As for Mike… what do you think?
So far, nothing in the 140-0dd pages I’ve read comes close to the page or so of the prologue. Robertson, most of the time, is writing about what he knows – he’s around the same age as Mike, has lived through the same history – but the trouble is, I know it too. his tricks with the narrative don’t compensate for a relaxed, unhurried style – I could say long-winded – that doesn’t offer as many unexpected insights as a reader might hope for. Mike isn’t sorted yet; Scotland isn’t sorted yet. Is it really going to take another 500 pages to reach some kind of resolution? Apparently so. And I bet that the subject of the only story we’ve ever heard Murdo telling, a skeletal corpse he once found and left alone on a sand-dune, turns out to be the story-spreading tramp. I also bet that we’ll only find this out in the last few pages.
This would be quite a big section of a short novel, but at 70-odd pages it’s less than an eighth of this one. What Robertson does is what the mouth in the box tells the impatient listener: he goes back to the beginning of the story. In fact, he goes back to 1950, and we quickly realise that one of the two main characters in what is otherwise an entirely new thread will eventually become the not-quite tramp. He is Jack Gordon and, in reminiscences with his weekly drinking partner Don, he goes back even further. He was captured by the Japanese in the War and, frankly, is never going to get over it. Don… is less forthright about his experiences in Italy, until near the end of Part 2. (Robertson likes to keep something back until near the end.) He was the only survivor in a frankly mindless friendly-fire anti-personnel bombing of a stationary convoy by American planes. And, like apparently all novels of the last couple of decades that have scenes set on the front line of either world war, this contains scenes of graphic, literally visceral horror. Back home, nobody ever understands.
But, reader, we do. And we begin to see the tiniest seeds of the nationalism that is such a big theme in Part 1. Jack, in his OCD way, describes the Scottish home rule bill that came to nothing in 1914 because… well, we know why. But now, in the early 1950s, there’s mention of a new Covenant, signed by a million Scots and representing… not very much, yet, if Don’s sceptical response is anything to go by. But Jack isn’t Don, and he has an almost primeval feeling for the entity that is Scotland. He tells Don how he and his fellow-prisoners had kept hope alive in the jungle by remembering details of Scottish hills, towns, streets and everything else down to the tiniest details. This is recognisably the same consciousness as the one offering the vision of the country I found so convincing in the prologue – and it isn’t at all surprising that a few months or years after, he’s off and obsessively searching for the reality of it. Ok.
The other things you get in Part 2 are quite rare in art-house fiction south of the border these days. There’s the experience of working class families, the men having returned from the war recently and with money almost too tight to manage on despite nostalgia-inducing numbers of factories, mines and other sources of employment. There’s the hopefulness of the first Atlee government and the shortness of people’s memories that allow the Tories back in when rationing and other hardships don’t magically disappear. As before, there’s little new or unexpected, and I can’t quite work out how Robertson takes so many pages to move the plot so incrementally. There’s a 1950s non-sex moment, to contrast with what we’ve already seen in later decades in Part 1: Don kisses the nurse who lets him see his newborn son in the hospital, and he can hardly forget it for what seems like months. And… there’s fear of the Bomb, news reports of the war in Korea, a mining accident not many miles away. But there’s very little of the narrative games-playing of Part 1. Aside from the main characters’ reminiscences it’s almost entirely in chronological order.
And, in a short epilogue, we get Jack’s voice again, describing an attempt to return to the town, soon abandoned, and a continuation of that ‘journey in your head, though you didn’t know the shape of it.’ But, reader, the direction he likes best is north, ‘always north.’ And where does Murdo discover that skeletal corpse all those decades later?
John Le Carré meets Scottish nationalism. What does that make, John MacCarré? We’re with Duffelcoat Dick, the spook spotted by Jean in another universe in Part 2, and clues that we’re somewhere different are that the text is now non-justified, and direct speech is punctuated in the Scottish manner, i.e. without speech marks. Don’t ask me why, when the highly separate strands of Parts 1 and 2 have no such distinguishing features. Maybe it’s Robertson’s way of alerting us to the fact that he’s taken us into a new narrative space. Maybe. Aside from having the hard-boiled, wrong-footing elements of a spy story it’s conventional enough, with the framing device now Dick – real name James Bond, preferred name Peter – in the present, in his late 60s and the late stages of alcoholism, looking back over an unsatisfactory life on the margins of Scottish nationalist politics from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Often these are through conversations with imaginary figures from his past. And reader, there are 140 pages of this stuff. Jesus.
Robertson isn’t the first author to give us the same events from different perspectives. But after a few pages I had a look at how long Part 3 is, and wondered whether he was really going to stick with this one strand for all those non-justified pages… Reader, as I’ve already said, yes he does. It becomes a warped history of the start-stop approach to nationalism between the dying days of one Conservative government, that of Macmillan and Douglas-Home, and the ideological certainties of another, Margaret Thatcher’s. It’s warped because of Bond’s role in it, if it’s a role at all. His boss is a man called Canterbury, representative of the London-based Establishment that wants to keep Scotland within Britain. Over time its reasons for this change – Labour’s shrinking majority in parliament, the economic imperative of keeping North Sea Oil a part of the British family silver – and, by the mid-1980s, it’s winning, and nationalism is losing.
As in Part 1, this is all familiar stuff. Real history, which Robertson has apparently decided is crucial to his narrative, forms a background to everything his characters do. But it isn’t as interesting as he seems to think it is, particularly when events we’ve come across in an earlier section come around again. There are little tweaks, presumably in an attempt to keep the narrative interesting – Bond himself is a part of this – but whether there’s enough new territory to prevent a non-Scot from falling asleep is debateable. The history of nationalism in Scotland in the last 50 years is not uninteresting in itself – and I’m sorry if that sounds like faint praise – but the amount of space it takes up is out of proportion. But I’m becoming as repetitive as Robertson himself.
What do you need to know? Bond is another of Robertson’s throwbacks to a kind of narrative that literary fiction no longer considers fashionable. He is the working class boy made good, finding it increasingly difficult to relate to the parents who are proud of him, but have no idea what he does or how he has left them behind. If there’s a way of making this stuff new and interesting Robertson doesn’t find it, and he quickly takes things in a different direction anyway. It seems to me that all his main characters are some kind of Scottish Everyman – EveryScot – all looking for meaning and direction in a Scotland that is looking for those same things. Bond’s particular distinguishing Scottish traits are his hard drinking, his belief that he is pulling the wool over the eyes of the English when in fact he is being shafted by his bosses… and his lifelong inability either to work out what’s going on or what he would like to see as an outcome.
Robertson links him to the rest of the novel by way of some rather tenuous threads. We’ve had his earlier appearances in the margins of Part 1, of course, and we find out we’ve met him in Part 2 as well: he was the taciturn little boy, Jimmy, that we met with Jack when Don takes his son out for a walk in the woods. I suppose that making a character we know into the ‘mad Uncle Jack’ of a character we couldn’t possibly have linked him to is Robertson’s way of sagely making a point about unexpected connections in a country whose smallness several characters remark on. And before National Service Bond worked on a local newspaper with Bill Drummond, the pitiably flashy reporter who took Don’s wife to the hospital. So we get a take on how he appeared to the highly observant young Bond…. As if it matters.
Anyway. It must have seemed a good idea to place the ins and outs of nationalist politics within a John Le Carré-esque plot, full of twists and turns and indecipherable motives. Long before the end it’s clear – it’s the only thing that is – that not only does Bond not know where any of his bosses stand, but he doesn’t know where he stands himself. That doesn’t stop Robertson adding more twists and tweaks, like the badly managed ‘accident’ of a prominent nationalist and the suicide – if that’s what it is – of Bond’s minder. But there’s another thread, and it might be to do with another of Bond’s typically Scottish habits. He constantly beats himself up about the pointlessness of hindsight – if only he’d known… etc. But the point is, in the second decade of the 21st Century, we know how far things really have come and, like Bond, can see how much time really was wasted.
This novel was published in 2010, when a referendum on independence was not a certainty. If Robertson has been doing his job properly, the reader should be in no doubt that it will come, eventually, even if not after the first of these. Of course, plenty of non-Scots won’t be terribly bothered either way… but maybe this isn’t a novel aimed at non-Scots. It was received well in the London-based British press – but the only prizes it won, or was nominated for, were Scottish. Why am I not surprised?
This is, essentially, the third 140-page novella we’ve had so far. There are differences from Parts 1 and 3: it mainly takes the lives of the parents and children in the shorter Part 2 (plus a few others) through the next two or three decades of their lives. And its fragmentary structure doesn’t follow just one person’s life like 1 and 3, but follows separate lives for a few pages at a time before switching to others. And, of course, as he has done from the start, Robertson slips in a paragraph or two of history or sociology from time to time…. Near the end of it, when the character called Ellen Imlach comes up for the first time in maybe 100 pages, it took a long time for me to remember who the bloody hell she was. If I sound irritated it’s because it’s a problem when a character pops up whose only recognisable feature is her name.
This is a pity, because there are a lot of good things in this section, covering everything about the 60s, 70s and 80s that a left-of-centre author would be likely to include. That might sound like the rest of the novel, and in terms of the history it is, but Robertson adds other things to the mix and there are some superb set pieces as we follow the stories of the several families. There are reviews of this novel that describe it as Dickensian, and it’s this section they must be referring to. But Robertson’s approach is less controlled than that of Dickens. Within the space of Part 4 there are some sections that would make powerful short stories… but beware a 140-page narrative with, at a guess, a dozen major players.
The pattern, if you can call it that, is for Robertson to start with a particular family until the kids start to grow up, move on to another family and do the same, and as we reach the 60s and 70s, follow one or other of the kids as they reach adulthood. There’s Ellen Imlach and her feisty mother – the first character to be introduced to us in Part 4, in her unmarried state, as Mary Murray – and her father, largely absent because he works away, anywhere that isn’t the local pit. There are the Lennies, Don and Liz with their two sons and, we realise, the daughter we met in another time-line. (Just don’t ask me where, or what her name is.) There’s Jack’s wife and daughter, who had moved out of the village in Part 2… but they don’t really come into it until the daughter, Barbara, meets Don’s favourite son when they are in their late teens and becomes his partner for most of the rest of Part 4. There are the Hoggs, neighbours of the Imlachs, only minor players but useful representatives of the lumpen proletariat.
At the other end of the social scale are the Eddelstanes, a fading Tory MP and his self-indulgent wife, their two sons – both of whom we’ve met in Part 1 at Mike’s boarding school and after – and the daughter whose extremist political views become a problem for them. They seem to be there to demonstrate just how unappealing the upper middle classes can be. Political gerrymandering? Check. Investment in the arms trade? Check. Speculative property development? Check. And, of course, shoe fetishism. Are they the most unappealing of the characters? Not when Charlie Lennie is around, described by Barbara the only time she meets him as a psychopath and happy to prove her right in a later scene with poor old Ellen Imlach.
So we get a different take on the same historical events that have come round before. Depending on which family we’re with, these are to do with how things look from the bottom end of the working class and from the most cynical end of the Tory rich. Robertson also spends a lot more time than previously on family relationships, from earliest childhood to the death of grandparents. And – hang on – at least six different ways of doing marital or near-marital relationships. Soap opera? Sometimes, but by no means always. And what’s wrong with soap opera anyway?
We spend most time, I’d say, with the aspiring working class Lennies and the Eddelstanes, the upper middles who think the world owes them a living. Don Lennie’s favourite son, Billy, is another working class boy made good, but in a far more conventional way than Peter Bond in Part 3. He ends up as the sort of history teacher who understands that ‘90% of history is propaganda’, so Robertson obviously likes him. The other son, Charlie, is a nightmare. He bullies Billy despite being three years younger, can’t wait to leave school despite being just as bright as the university-bound Billy, and embraces a life of crime as soon as he can. He goes to live with his granny in the larger town nearby, and is soon the cock of that particular walk.
And I wonder if these sections could only have been written by a man. The boys’ mother favours Charlie, in the way that men find inexplicable in their wives. And for all his devilishness, he has the best tunes. In a chance encounter when they must both be in their 20s, when Charlie tells Billy that his girlfriend must have cut off his balls, it’s hard to be on the side of the right-on Billy, politically correct a decade or more before the term was coined. In fact, Robertson is highly interested in exploring maleness in a society in which women are redefining their own position. Charlie, against the flow, stands immovable as the representative of – of what, exactly? In a power struggle of Freudian proportions with his father, Charlie wins hands down. In fact, he wins any battle in which all that’s needed is strength and sudden violence. The scene I mentioned with Ellen Imlach involves two violent rapes, graphically described, which leave her emotionally shredded for weeks.
She is rescued by a former colleague, Robin, another PC male of the vegetarian persuasion. Unasked, he looks after her, ends up in a relationship with her, and agrees to look after the daughter that Charlie fathered on her some weeks before the rapes. By this time, Billy has left a long-term relationship with Barbara… and we’ve seen various others that are unsatisfactory for their own reasons. Don and Liz? Despite his criticism of Billy’s lack of staying-power, we know from an earlier insight into his thoughts that Don would have left his worn-out marriage to Liz, except that’s not what people of his generation do. (And he still obsesses over that nurse, ten years later.) The Eddelstanes’ marriage is a sham. The marriage of the elder Eddelstone son, David, is a different sort of sham, although he believes for a while that his new wife has cured him of his shoe fetishism… and I’ll get back to that, and him, in a minute. Anybody else? Ellen’s parents don’t sleep together even when he’s home. Charlie? Don’t ask.
David Eddelstane. Up to the age of about 20 he’s a kind of Candide, innocently accepting whatever advice he is given by people who offer it – there’s a lot of accepting, and taking, in Robertson’s jaundiced presentation of the rich – and finding himself propelled towards money and a seat in the Commons. He’s a caricature, as are the simple-minded, amoral rules of the capitalist game played first by his mentors and then, unthinkingly, by him. Is he presented quite as seriously as all the other characters? At one level he is, as he learns quickly how to make money from the windfall that comes his way when his grandmother dies – as stark a contrast as you could wish for to the scrimping and saving the working class families have to go through. But really he’s a Steve Bell grotesque, down to the obsession with women’s shoes that Robertson spends some pages lovingly describing. But he’s not as bad as his father, desperate to beg or borrow from the son who has so unexpectedly become a magnet for money, or the unspeakable Tories whose company he finds himself in. To me, no lover of Tories, they’re a parade of Aunt Sallies.
I don’t mean to sound tired, but maybe I can’t help it. When Robertson was flitting from thread to thread at the beginning of Part 4 I was ready to give up, although there are enough interesting things to make me glad that I read on. The aspiring working classes don’t get enough coverage in modern fiction, so it’ a pleasure to see Ellen, at her grandfather’s knee, being educated in the basics of spotting capitalist bullshit. But we also have to get another blatant Alan Hollinghurst moment, not to do with gay sex this time – all the sex is hetero, if with an unexpected or vicious twist – but with the adoration of Margaret Thatcher by Tory men. It could have come straight out of the party she attends at the Feddens in The Line of Beauty.
What would I do with this book if it came to me for editing? Turn it into several different novels? Turn it into two novels – with the James ‘Peter’ Bond one separated out – plus a social history? Reduce it by, say, half then cut and paste it to make a single time-line instead of the repeated one we’ve now had so many times over? Tell Robertson that writing a 670-page novel doesn’t make it ‘sweeping’, it makes it long? Probably the last of these.
This feels like an ending, although it isn’t, quite: there are still the 30-odd pages of Part 6 after this one. But, yes, the Jack Gordon epilogue to this section has confirmed that his must have been the corpse that Murdo found.
It feels like an ending because, at last, Robertson moves on from the early years of Thatcherism that are as far as he’s got previously. His method is a relief in one way: he takes us, in a single chronological line, from the early 1980s through the next 20 years – whereas he’s gone over the previous decades so many times it feels like scribble. However, this does mean that we have to get a potted version of the close-down of heavy industries, the Falklands War, the miners’ strike, the sell-offs of public utilities, the poll tax, and so on, and on, and on. Thatcher goes, Major hangs on, New Labour is conservatism in disguise… and, in parallel with this we have the haphazard progress of Scottish nationalism. We sometimes get pages of historical exposition, and it’s dreadful. There are absolutely no surprises in what Robertson tells us or how he presents it – we know exactly where he stands on everything by now – and as I was reading I felt patronised.
But 560-odd pages into the book, for the first time, something novelistic happens. So far we’ve only had people being born and doing stuff and dying. In Part 5 – and Robertson is so pleased he announces it in foot-high letters, 40 pages in advance of the pay-off – there is an unprecedented sighting of narrative tension. David Eddelstane’s sister – the one I briefly mentioned, with the extremist views – asks him for a large sum of money. He says no, and she, a 30-something spoilt brat, tells him she hates him. He can take this – but Robertson tips us the wink: ‘She hated him. What he didn’t yet understand was just how much.’ What she does is to enlist Peter Bond to help her investigate her brother’s illicit visits to the private addresses where he indulges his fetish. It all comes out during the Major government’s sleaze meltdown. So it goes.
It’s not the only thing that goes. Liz dies of cancer but not before a reconciliation with Don during her last months alive. Aww. Later, Don accidentally meets – guess – in a supermarket, and soon she moves in with him. But Mike’s long-term relationship with the more politically right-on Adam comes to an end, as if we care, Charlie dies in a military training accident… and so on. It’s thin stuff, possibly because by now Robertson is far more interested in letting us have his take on politics in Westminster and Scotland at tedious length. He introduces new faces like John Major or Alex Salmond like rabbits from a hat, and their stories are even less interesting than those of the fictional characters.
But it’s starting to seem that anything to do with the characters is secondary to the main thrust of the narrative: how Scotland finally found its sense of direction. Robertson has always had a problem dealing with this, and now he resorts to endless exposition, and references to mainly fictitious figures responding to real events. (Earlier, in the Peter Bond section, even the nationalist figures are almost all fictitious, and many of the events.) When the exposition describes real events, Robertson often relies on by-election results that were only interesting a long time ago and replays of episodes that are only of highly localised interest. I’ve already said how dull it is.
Occasionally Robertson varies the narrative mode. For a few pages, during Peter Bond’s investigation (and failure to forge a long-term relationship with Eddelstane’s daughter) we’re back to non-justified text without speech marks. Later, the section in which we hear of Don’s new life with the nurse he kissed 40 years earlier is narrated entirely by her. I can think of no reason for this beyond, perhaps, an authorial decision to return to the more varied techniques he was trying out in Part 1. It doesn’t help.
Anyway. The end of Part 5, as I’m sure it’s supposed to, feels a bit like life. Some relationships have failed, while others have stayed the course. Ellen and Robin have stayed together, and her daughter thrives. Billy finds happiness, as his new stepmother the ex-nurse tells us, after he meets a minor character from Part 1. This is the woman who seemed destined to be Mike’s first girlfriend until he recognised his own sexuality – which might all seem a bit twee, because it is, but it lets Robertson set another hare running: she’s into Gaelic, while he’s into Scots dialect, and they bring up their children ‘trilingual’. (I’ve long suspected that Robertson has given us something of self-portrait in Billy. He, Robertson, writes children’s books in dialect.)
And what about the Scottish question? (Sigh.) It’s getting sorted. Enough.
Part 6 – to the end
The message seems to be that what goes around comes around. And when it does, you’ll find that everything is connected. Robertson has already established both of these things: whenever an important new character arrives, we’ve usually either met them before or they are linked to someone we already know. (An exception is Elaine, whose house Liz cleans in Parts 4 and 5. She’s married to a hospital doctor and I was absolutely convinced, because that’s how things work in this novel, that she would turn out to be the nurse Don obsesses over. I was wrong – but then she turns out not to be important anyway.) In earlier sections we’ve had Murdo finding Jack’s body and leaving it be, and all those other intertwining lives….
What we get in Part 6 is a) a return to the framing device of Part 1, the exhibition of photographs by Mike’s father, b) most of the surviving players invited to (or gatecrashing) the opening, where Mike can have encounters with them, c) Mike’s realisation of just how intertwined these people’s lives really are and d) a return to the questions in Part 1 about the nature of storytelling. By the end, Mike knows about connections that some of the players aren’t aware of and, as the final sentence has it, ‘the connections will be made, and he understands that it has fallen to him to make them.’ A powerful sentence, reverberating with a significant truth? Or has Mike finally twigged what Robertson has been banging away at for 600-odd pages? You decide.
Robertson presents a cosy, comfortable world. These are the survivors. Mike himself has just had his first ever phone-call from Murdo, and this longed-for connection – it really feels as contrived as that – seems to foretell a future in which they will cope with any local difficulties their new openness might lead to. Ellen is here with Kirsty, her now grown-up daughter, and they do all right considering the generation gap; and what we hear of the set-up with Robin at the top of their nice house is straight out of a lifestyle magazine. Billy and family are doing fine – Mike is suitably astonished when he realises who Billy’s partner is – and even Peter Bond seems to be getting closer to his alter-ego, James, as he talks to him in the mirror in the gents.
But, once we’ve got past Mike’s speech – which, inevitably, contains the core of this section’s central ideas – we’re most often with Don and his late flowering of happiness. He’s the connection to the War, to Jack Gordon – his recognition of Jack in Angus’s photograph is what sets off yet another epiphany for Mike, concerning the interconnectedness of absolutely everything – and not only to Billy but also the dead Charlie. Mike’s light-bulb moment at the end is to do with the fact that Don is the grandfather that Kirsty has never met….
This is what Robertson goes for in lieu of plot. Nothing is progressed by these rather arbitrary connections, any more than by the random links that Robertson has added to the mix in earlier sections. The connections are the point and, as the final sentence makes clear, it’s our job to seek them out. It’s only a pity that so much weight is being attached to what is, after all, one of the simplest narrative tricks in this or any other book.
This is a ragged, rambling, exasperating novel. Am I satisfied by the nudges Robertson has Mike give us in his (unprepared) speech, in which he finally decides that his father’s 200-odd photographs, whilst all separate, go to make up a coherent story of Scotland in the post-war years? Are we convinced by the quotation from Faulkner that ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past’? Or by Ellen’s musings immediately afterwards on what makes a story: ‘the storyteller may dissemble and deceive, the story can’t; the story can only ever be itself.’
No, sorry. If there’s one thing any storyteller knows, including Robertson, it’s that the story is in the telling. Rewrite or re-tell it, and it’s different. And if Robertson doesn’t think his rattle-bag of a novel has done justice to the story of Scotland since the war, no amount of tinkering now is going to help. There are plenty of good things in this book, but it should be half the length and rely on a coherent structure instead of gee-whiz coincidences. End of story.