Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

The after-shocks of war…

🙂 🙂 🙂

(NB Since this is a review of the second part of a trilogy, it will contain some mild spoilers for the first part, Sunset Song.)

The Great War is over, and with it so is the first phase of Chris Guthrie’s life. Now married to Robert Colquohoun, she goes with him to make a home in the small town of Segget, where he is to take up the position of minister in the Presbyterian church. The book takes us from the end of the war through to the ‘30s, a time frame that includes the Depression, the General Strike and the rise of the two warring philosophies that would rip the European twentieth century apart – fascism and socialism. In Scotland as elsewhere, the horrors of the war have left scars – not just on those people who have lost sons and husbands, but on those who served and came home, some left physically maimed and others injured more insidiously, with what we would now term PTSD but which then was called shell-shock, if it was recognised at all, or was ignored completely. The other casualty of war, Gibbon suggests, was faith. Church attendances are down, even believers are baffled by how a good God could have allowed such atrocities to happen, and people are now willing to defy the Church completely and openly call themselves atheist. It is in this atmosphere that the rather visionary Robert will try to inspire his new flock and Chris will dutifully observe the Church’s practices while making little effort to pretend that she believes in Robert’s God.

This second volume of A Scots Quair is written with considerably more dialect than the first, and so will be a tougher read for non-Scots or younger Scots, though it’s done very well. I might as well start by saying I don’t think it’s anywhere near to Sunset Song in terms of the writing, structure or in what it has to say about society, though it tries. I found most of it a drag – a series of anecdotes about the occupants of this small town, who drift in and out in order to help Gibbon make points, rather than his points arising seemingly naturally from their stories. These anecdotes are designed to show their lives, hardships and the state of politics. Some are interesting, some mildly humorous, many are quite crude, and for me they didn’t quite come together to form a quilt – they are more like scraps of material waiting for someone to stitch them together. Almost no-one is good – I don’t mean that they don’t conform to society’s moral codes, although they don’t, but that they don’t seem to love and support each other. We see children who hate and abuse their parents and vice-versa, men who abuse and sometimes rape women, women who are spiteful and vindictive. There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.

Book 54 of 90

Chris herself is almost entirely passive and is an example of what I mean about Gibbon using his characters. In Sunset Song, Chris had a profound connection to the land she farmed and this was a major part of her personality. Between the books, she has apparently simply given up farming and has willingly gone off to live in a town and become a housewife. Since clearly this is because Gibbon wanted to write about a town this time, it would have been less jarring if he’d left Chris in Kinraddie and given Robert a different wife. A recurring character who changes so completely between books gives a sense of dislocation rather than of continuity. He tries to show that Chris still feels connected to the land by having her going for long solitary walks, but this is no substitute. She also seems to have moved up a class, not just outwardly as one would by marrying a minister at that time, but inwardly, having developed a rather snobbish ability to look down on the townspeople.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Robert is a much more successful character and for me is the heart of the book. Outwardly he seems fine after his war experiences, although he has been left with weakened lungs from exposure to gas attacks. But inwardly, his experiences haunt him increasingly, making his relationship with his God fraught – wavering between loss of faith and visionary ecstasy. He is also torn when he sees the poverty and inequality of society growing ever worse. Politically he is drawn towards the ideas of the socialists, but they espouse atheism as part of their creed, leaving Robert in an uneasy no-man’s-land. I wondered why this man, to whom religion was far more than a tradition or a job, would have married a woman who not only didn’t believe but made it clear from the beginning that she had no intention of fulfilling the customary role of a minister’s wife by becoming a central figure in the community. They seem entirely mismatched and again Gibbon doesn’t show us their courtship, which happened off-page between books.

Chris’ son, Ewan, grows up during the course of the book and it seems to set him up to be the main character in the third volume. Through him, we see the increasing Englishing of the language and culture – a theme also central to Sunset Song.

Overall, I found this disappointing and not nearly as memorable as the excellent and highly recommended Sunset Song. I will go on to read the third book, Grey Granite, but more out of a sense of duty than eager anticipation.

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39 thoughts on “Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

  1. I read Sunset Song a few years back and have been wondering about reading the other two books in the trilogy ever since. I’m grateful for your review as it’s convinced me I no longer need to plan on doing this 😀

  2. Sorry to hear this one didn’t live up to the promise of the first one, FictionFan. But I do know exactly and precisely what you mean about characters being used to make a point, rather than existing on their own. It’s hard to stay interested in the plot, too, if it’s a vehicle for what the author has to say (unless it’s done very, very well).

    • It was such a change from the first one where I didn’t feel at all that he was using the characters so obviously. And I wasn’t sure that he really made his points very coherently in this one – unconvincing – and again very different from the first. I wondered if he’d only written this one to kind of cash in on the success of Sunset Song, but I don’t know that…

    • I don’t know. I know the first one is the one that people always include in lists of Scottish classics, but I was surprised at how big a difference there was between them.

  3. Let’s hope the third one improves — this sounds pretty tedious. Bad enough to write about that time in history, with its war aftermaths and Great Depression; but to spring a wife on the unsuspecting reader (especially a wife so out-of-tune with the main character!) stretches belief.

    • Haha! Yes, I couldn’t help wondering why he thought these two made a good match. Mind you, considering how unappealing all the other characters were maybe neither of them felt they had much choice… 😉

  4. Such a shame when the second installment in a trilogy fails to deliver. Here’s hoping the third book will more than make up for this one!

    • My hopes are pretty low. I knew in advance that the first book had the reputation of being better than the other two, but I was still surprised at how big the difference was. Still, at least I’ll be able to tick them off the list…! 😉

    • I don’t have high hopes for it, sadly – I knew the consensus seems to be that the first book is the best but I was still surprised at just how big the difference between them was…

  5. Hmm, I wonder what happened here as Sunset Song is such a great book. I recently re-read it as I have this one on my TBR. I’ll get it eventually, but after your review, I won’t exactly be rushing to it.

    • I don’t know – I wondered if maybe he’d only written this one and the next to kind of cash in on the success of Sunset Song, but I have no idea if that’s true. However, these things are always subjective, so with luck you’ll enjoy it more than I did. I think you can safely un-prioritise it though… 😉

  6. What a shame. But perhaps the next book will set things right. The premise of the series sounds strong and I would love to read a set of novels exploring these themes. But unless the next book comes up to scratch I shall probably pass. Here’s hoping!

    • I don’t have high hopes for the third, sadly – I knew the first book is usually considered the best but I was still surprised at just how big a difference there was between them. But Sunset Song works perfectly as a standalone, and really didn’t need a follow-up in my opinion, so keep that one on your list! 😀

  7. I always get so disappointed when the follow up book fails to deliver. In your shoes, I would probably have stopped, so kudos to you for moving on to the third book in the trilogy. Is it because it is a Scottish classic and you feel you ought to have read it?

    • It’s a pity because Sunset Song is so good. This one almost felt as if maybe he’d only written it to kinda cash in on the success of the first. Can’t say I’m looking forward to the third, but I feel I ought to read it…

      Thanks for the link – it’s nice to know he’s recognised!

    • Yes, I felt the first one was perfect as a standalone and didn’t need a follow-up, so I wish he’d used different characters for this one. I really didn’t like how Chris turned out…

  8. All this Scottish dialect is fascinating. I have a theory that it shares some Eastern Canadian terms, of which I’ve been reading quite a bit of late. Have you heard of the term slutlamp???

    • No, that’s one I haven’t come across, but there are so many regional dialects in Scotland (despite it being tiny) that I regularly come across Scots words I don’t know, so me not knowing it doesn’t mean it can’t be a Scottish term. I’d expect you’re right – so many Scots emigrated especially to the Eastern side of Canada that they must have taken some of the words with them, I’d think…

  9. It does sound like this would have been better as a stand-alone novel with new characters. The religious aspect fascinates me – I’m always interested to read books that portray how people deal with things like war and tragedy but I agree that it makes no sense for someone as committed to religion as a minister to marry someone who could take it or leave it.

    • I wonder what you’d make of the religious aspects of this one. I felt he gave a rather unfair view of people’s attitude to it, though not an unrecognisable one in Scotland even today. Most church-goers are shown as hypocrites who just use the church as a pillar of social order, and the very few actual believers are kinda shown as naïve and deluded. Sadly Scotland’s relationship with religion isn’t always a healthy one, but it is fascinating…

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