Dead poet’s society

23 February 2017

3:00 PM

23 February 2017

3:00 PM

Alex Salmond, former first minister of Scotland, once claimed that he could always tell Scottish fiction from English. Novels, he said, reveal fundamental differences in the values of the Scots and the English.

I wonder then what he would make of Annalena McAfee’s book, Hame — about the most Scottish work of fiction that any English novelist could possibly write. So committed is the former Guardian journalist authentically to explore every aspect of life north of the Border that she learnt to speak Braid Scots — from Lallans to Doric dialects — and crafted poetry in them. Surely that makes her more Scottish than most born-and-bred Caledonians? For what drives Hame is this question of national identity and whether (like gender?) it is simply a construct.

The story focuses on an academic, Mhairi McPhail, who leaves behind her hipster life in New York to move with her young daughter to the remote fictional Hebridean island of Fascaray, where she’s agreed to write the biography of its most celebrated resident: a crotchety, English-hating writer named Grigor McWatt.

As she sorts through his letters and somewhat humourless compendium of island life, Mhairi questions her own motives for ‘serving as handmaiden to a dead poet’ (a composite of various mid-century Scots poets such as George Mackay Brown and Hugh MacDiarmid). McWatt also leaves an archive of newspaper columns in which he ‘maned’ (moaned) about everything from the golf-course-ification of the island to young people chosing American pop culture over ceilidhs. All ‘whumgee’ (frivolous) forms of entertainment appalled him anyway; his own passions were poetry and Scottish nationalism, which he pursued by translating the likes of Donne, Byron, Blake and Larkin into a language dismissed by one critic as ‘a sort of Woolworths Pick’ n’ Mix assortment of half-remembered barely spoken words from innumerable incompatible dialects across Scotland’.

Mhairi discovers that McWatt was so burdened by half a century of threats to Fascaray’s cultural purity that he didn’t have time to indulge in ‘hochmagandy’ (sex) with his muse, Lilias Hogg. The only thing he truly yearned for was ‘a life of quiet toil in the service of Scots poetry’ and, unfortunately for the reader, his attempts to lead such an existence proved remarkably successful.

McAfee is an elegant, knowing writer but it’s a pity she couldn’t step away from her exhaustive research and let her imagination take over. She’s at her best describing the beauty of her island or having fun with language — but she could have had much more mischief with her characters. They become so mired in local funding applications and Scottish plumbing bothers that the story feels rather ho-hum. I longed for someone to get trapped by the Fascardian tides or inveigled into some Wicker Man-esque habber-galyo (turmoil). Alas, what we get is a rather predictable literary thoog a poog. I could tell you what that means, but it would spoil the novel’s sole moment of drama.

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