Tuesday, August 12, 2008

the last book I read

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

It's been a long time since I did one of these - by my calculations 65 days since the last one. This is (because, needless to say, I have gone and done the maths) comfortably the longest gap between books since I started doing this - the previous record-holder being Margaret Drabble's A Natural Curiosity which took me 42 days to read. This works out at a pitiful 3.97 pages per day, which is pretty piss-poor compared with, for instance, my knocking off the 316 pages of Barbara Trapido's Juggling in 2 days.

There are a couple of reasons for this, one of which is my reduced opportunities for reading now that I'm driving to and from work, as discussed here. The other is that some books are just more difficult to read than others, without that being intended to imply any judgment as to their relative quality. A novel about recognisably modern events written in recognisable modern English is going to slip down a lot more digestibly than a book published in the early 1930s (and set a couple of decades earlier) about rural Scottish farming life written in broad (and occasionally incomprehensible) Anglo-Scots demotic.

The fictional community of Kinraddie is in the north-east of Scotland, and is home to a wide cast of characters, including the novel's de facto heroine Chris Guthrie. The 20th century (it's 1911 when the novel opens) is making its presence felt, and the new opportunities offered by motorised transport, increased social mobility and easier access to education are eroding the old certainties and providing Chris and others with a dilemma - stay and work the land like her parents, or go and see what the newly accessible wider world has to offer. Chris is torn between her love of books and learning and her love of the land, but decides to stay on the farm, at which point the obligatory disasters occur: her mother kills herself and her two youngest children, her father has what appears to be a stroke and dies, and her brother marries a local girl and then ups sticks and emigrates to Argentina to start a new life there.

At this point Chris meets and subsequently marries Highlander Ewan Tavendale, and they take over the running of the farm. Brief happiness ensues, but then World War I breaks out, and gradually, despite the community's isolation, starts to have an impact. Ewan eventually enlists and returns, brutalised by army life, for a brief - unhappy - visit before being packed off to France, where he is eventually shot as a deserter. The book ends with Chris engaged to be remarried to the new minister, who dedicates a memorial to those who have died during the war.
So far, so grim, but it isn't as bleak as it sounds. The most surprising thing about the book is how modern it all feels - the strong female central character, the obvious sympathy with the free-thinking iconoclastic characters like Long Rob of the Mill and Chae Strachan, the mistrust of authority in general and organised religion in particular, and the robust and unflinching treatment of subjects like sex and childbirth.

The language is a bit of a challenge at first; you can either keep one finger stuck in the brief glossary at the back for quick reference, or you can let it wash over you and gradually soak up the rhythm of it like you have to with the Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange. It's not easy, and it takes a bit of time, but, just to turn into my grandfather for a moment, sometimes worthwhile stuff takes a bit of effort. I might plump for something a bit easier next though, just for a bit of contrast.

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