Tag Archives: Scottish Literature

Bad Girl Lit on Necessary Fiction

My Writer-in-Residency continues to surprise me – who knew I’d actually complete this sprawling, messy essay on The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan and How The Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland? And on a Monday too. Which is why I’m giving this a wee post of its own. Do read the two novels if you have not – I’m not generally in favour of choosing novels based on character alone, but Anais Hendricks and Lou Conner are like bright red lightening, so. Here’s a taster of my essay:


There’s something therefore about the energy of a good book about a smart bad girl. Something sharp and high pitched in it, that unsettles, rips the cover out from under the cutlery – and as fiction, capable of multifarious realities, endless return and all possibilities, leaves the plates suspended between disarray and quivering stillness for the duration of reading. Because if a bad girl seems to be urges, seems to be a force – what then of a bad girl who appears to have the intelligence to choose to be this way. What about a bad girl stabilised for the moment in print. And specifically here, bad girl lit that focuses on the girl herself, her inner life, that seeks not to moralise but purely, impurely tell.


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Driving over the mountain


This shot taken by complete accident around eight o’ clock while A was driving us out of Ullapool, a village near to the bothy at Badrallach. And by near, I mean about 17 miles or so. This is mountain, field, moor and sea loch country. All that yellow you see is gorse bush, giving off its perfume of coconut to no one at all, and no bees right now. Perhaps little speck flies pollinate it, I don’t know.


I come back to the shot, and think of how it seems so much like my writing mind at times. A delicate blur of some grand scene. Right now, I’m working on a review of Reality, Reality, a collection of short stories by Jackie Kay, and thinking, because she is a Scot and mixed race, about race in Scotland, and trying not to make the review about that at all, because Jackie Kay is Jackie Kay, herself utterly, and a lovely writer.


So the review is blurry, because things need to be said to an international audience, that Scotland contains more than the image you can hold in your head of it.  Tartan and pipers and whisky and medieval men, pasty and freckly, in kilts. Or that film, Brave, which makes me put my head in my hands. That alluring, tourist-consumable image. Much more it is, and still becoming.


The landscape wooshes by, and now you are in the empty Highlands, but you might not know why exactly they are so empty – The Clearances, for one, as I like to mention here, and other socio-economic reasons I have not begun to contemplate. Woosh, and now you driving by a skiing town built up in the sixties and seventies and only less than hideously ugly when the snow is lying, as if it were designed that way. And then you are stuck in slow traffic on a bridge across a firth (an estuary), looking over at that icon of the railway, star of The Thirty-Nine Steps, and then the sun is shining and warm for once, so you go outside to a beer garden and listen to the crack of summer, a chick inside an egg beaking out and cheeping. Then you are in your house, tapping at the internet, sipping  more and more tea, trying to bring it all together.


This is the job of a writer in small countries and large. Bringing the moment together, or the whole nation, or some crumbly part of it, holding up to critique or make shimmering. And my eyes are blurry, and I need more time. And right now my mind is elsewhere, stitching at the world of grief and love in New Mexican mountains. Or it will be soon, when my head stops swinging.

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Endless Reads Review: Vinland by George Mackay Brown

There was a boy who lived in a hamlet in Orkney called Hamnavoe. The boy’s name was Ranald. Ranald’s father had a small ship called the Snowgoose. Ranald’s father – his name was Sigmund Firemouth – did not like the land or anything to do with it, such as ploughs or horses or barns. Sigmund Firemouth was only happy when he was at sea, adjusting his sail to the wind, going from one port to another with cargo, and, sometimes, passengers. – Vinland, George Mackay Brown.

Orcadian Ranald Sigmundson comes young to adventure: at the age of twelve he flees from his violent sea-faring father, stowing away on another ship, This ship happens to be captained by the famous Leif Ericsson – and so by chance Ranald is one of the first Europeans to set foot on Vinland. The beauty of this unknown land, and the encounters with the ‘skraelings’ or ‘savages’, which move swiftly from peaceable and welcoming to violent after the actions of a mistrustful Norse cook, will haunt Ranald forever.

After the Norsemen are temporarily driven from what will become Newfoundland, and winter in Greenland, Ranald decides to take to the seas as a trader. Despite his young age it seems like he has a knack for it, beyond the abilities of adults around him. In fact, he has a knack for most things, including survival. This is a useful skill in the time and place in which Ranald lives, circa 1000 AD, in the area of Northern Europe ruled by the King of Norway but constantly jostled by factions of minor kingships, murderous earls, and viking raiders.

However, as Ranald he grows up he becomes aware of his fealty to the land of his ancestors, and turns his hand to farming, and his back on the call of the sea, on the chaos of politics and war, and eventually even on his family, in favour of seeking a new land, beyond this one –

An admission: I wanted this book to set me on fire, and it didn’t. I think it was my cliff-high expectations: Mackay Brown’s Greenvoe, a novel about life on an Orkney island, a beautifully poetic, slow read, is one of my favourites, and I was expecting a similar kind of richness to the prose here.

What Vinland gives is a crisp rendering of a life of adventure in the Northern seas, political intrigue and disenchantment, and subsequent settling into quiet, meditative old age, all done in the style of a Norse saga. And this was just not what I needed at that moment. It feels like something I would have loved reading as a child, though it is definitely an adult book, particularly in the religious elements that Mackay Brown weaves into the latter half. Religious sensitivity goes hand in hand with a strongly environmental, humane message, which is essentially about living in harmony in the world.

It is, on its own terms, a compelling book with language that has the quality of a beaten-steel sword, and action that flows seamlessly along the highs and lows of one year to the next.


Filed under 2012, book cover, book review, consolations of reading, Endless Reads 2012, reading, Scotland