Mhairi McPhail, a Scots-Canadian historian, uproots herself and her nine year old daughter from their Brooklyn home to take a job on the remote (fictional) Scottish island of Fascaray (‘Scotland in miniature’), where she’s been hired to dig through the estate of recently deceased local ‘bard’, Grigor McWatt – curmudgeon, recluse, enraged nationalist, Anglophobe, composer of a hit Scots folk-song, and famous against his better wishes – in order to write a book on him and to set up a McWatt museum on the island. Though McWatt left behind plenty of material – his multi-volume Fascaray Compendium of nature writing and local history-slash-gossip – McPhail’s project is foundering on the personal details: where was McWatt born, and did he really have a mystery lover?
At six hundred pages, this is a massive book, and its structure doesn’t lend itself to immersion: by turns, it’s made up of excerpts from McPhail’s journal and her resultant book, and McWatt’s Compendium, his assorted newspaper columns and his poems – these being almost entirely ‘reimaginings’ in Lallans (aka Scots, or Synthetic Scots, depending on your stance on the matter) of classics of the Western canon, from Yeats to Homer to Stevie Smith. The narrative, then, rarely gets the opportunity to gather much pace, as we switch rapidly and continuously between McWatt’s lavish extended paeans to Fascaray’s flora and fauna; his high-handed editorialising rants against the English; McPhail’s measured historian’s account of Fascaray’s socio-historical problems and McWatt’s epistolary relationship with the doomed young Lillias Hogg (modelled, it seems, on Stella Cartwright); and the journal entries where McPhail details her life on Fascaray and mulls over the ruins of her relationship with Agnes’s father, Marco. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t have forward momentum, but there’s just a lot here, much of it world-building and little of it favoured with any urgency (unless the impending opening-date of the museum seems urgent to you; it didn’t quite cut it for me). That is: unless you’re very dazzled by the slow demise of feudalism and the encroachments of globalisation on a tiny fictional island, it’s not exactly a page-turner. The question-marks hanging over McWatt’s history have a certain intrigue, but not really enough to justify the book’s length: it’s pretty clear from early on that he has secrets, but it takes over four hundred pages for Mhairi to get a lead on these, and when it comes, the dénouement isn’t particularly surprising. And as for Mhairi McPhail’s own struggles: there wasn’t enough in the Marco strand, again, to keep me interested – neither of the characters are particularly sympathetic or interesting, and neither is the wrapping up of this strand very credible – and her worries about her parenting skills, drawn out over the length of the book, seem both repetitive and underdeveloped (Agnes doesn’t suffer unduly) and easily resolved (it’s amazing what Skype can accomplish). Moreover, the journal entries themselves are unpersuasive: the register is more first-person-novel-chapter in terms of exposition and scene-setting than it is private document, and there’s little here of the personal shorthand that might make it convincing as a diary – even if the diarist is a rather punctilious archivist.
The history of the island is interesting (although, again, I’m not sure it makes for an interesting novel) in that McAfee manages to synthesise a load of actual Scottish history and relocate it to Fascaray, so that we really do end up with a miniature version of the actual state, complete with lairds, clearances, anti-monarchy explosions, wind-farm protests, fishing disputes and the move towards industrialisation and modernity – and the figure of McWatt himself is a synthesis of elements of every (old, male) Scottish poet you care to mention, most of whom are in fact mentioned in the book in terms of McWatt’s feuds with, or respect for, them and their work. The compacting of all this into one tiny island (and one grumpy poet) could be read as cheesy or as a very clever metafictional exercise: I veered to the former, but it’s undoubtedly a work of enormous scope – the body of research that must have been involved is staggering. If you’re into the history of Scottish nationalism, you’ll no doubt grin as you page through, and if you know much about Scottish poetry, there’s in-jokes a plenty. McWatt’s poems themselves are presented as ‘reimaginings’ of earlier works, and if you’re familiar with the originals, you could pass a while admiring (or not) the Scots renditions; even if you dismiss them as poetry (and the text itself is sceptical enough of McWatt’s skills that this seems as legitimate a reading as any), the whole idea of ‘reimagining’ is key to appreciating what McAfee’s doing here: even as McWatt reimagined the poems, and McPhail is reimagining McWatt in her own volume, McAfee is reimagining Scottish history for a (presumably) English audience. It kind of works, too; even if you don’t get on well with Hame, there’s plenty here that might send you to the history aisles to see what really happened (especially in the context of both the Independence Referendum and impending Brexit). There’s a lot here about identity – Scottish, English, British, emigrant and immigrant – and language; the book plays out various conversations about the status of Scots, the idea of the vernacular, especially in poetry, and how identity and language are bound up with power and politics, party or otherwise. To her credit, McAfee isn’t pushing any certainties: the book lets various debates play out, contradictions and all.
Any Cop?: If you’re after archival research and literary-historical intrigue and romance, this isn’t ever going to rival Byatt’s Possession. I had the same reaction to it as I did to Lanchester’s Capital: the history and research behind the book was far more interesting than the book itself. If MacAfee were to write a non-fiction book on feudalism in Scotland, or on the various languages jostling for space, or on Scottish nationalism, like Lanchester did with the financial markets in Whoops, I’d much rather give that a shot than recommend this one.