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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TBR Thursday 215…

Episode 215

A tiny increase this week in the TBR – up 1 to 218 – thus proving the trend is still down. (Yes, I’ve obtained my diploma in the Art of Fake News, and am now studying for my Masters…)

Here are a few I’ll be reading soon. Period.

Fiction

Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad

I thoroughly enjoyed a collection of Conrad’s novellas which I read a year or so ago, so time to give one of his novels a try. This will also tick off another of the compulsory destinations on my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: Jim, a young British seaman, becomes first mate on the Patna, a ship full of pilgrims travelling to Mecca for the hajj. When the ship starts rapidly taking on water and disaster seems imminent, Jim joins his captain and other crew members in abandoning the ship and its passengers. A few days later, they are picked up by a British ship. However, the Patna and its passengers are later also saved, and the reprehensible actions of the crew are exposed. The other participants evade the judicial court of inquiry, leaving Jim to the court alone. He is publicly censured for this action and the novel follows his later attempts at coming to terms with his past. The novel is counted as one of 100 best books of the 20th century.

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Crime

The Lying Room by Nicci French

I enjoyed a couple of this crime-writing duo’s Freida Klein series, but the idea of eight books for one story isn’t for me, though I know plenty of people enjoyed them, so I gave up part-way through. This one claims to be a standalone, so I’m hoping it won’t have a cliffhanger ending. Must admit, I’m rather put off by the blurb’s use of the most overused cliché in the cliché-riddled morass of current crime fiction – “how far is she prepared to go to protect those she loves?” I’m trying to think when I last saw a blurb that didn’t say that…

The Blurb says: A trusted colleague and friend. A mother. A wife. Neve Connolly is all these things. She has also made mistakes; some small, some unconsciously done, some large, some deliberate. She is only human, after all.

But now one mistake is spiralling out of control and Neve is bringing those around her into immense danger.
She can’t tell the truth. So how far is she prepared to go to protect those she loves?

And who does she really know? And who can she trust?

A liar. A cheat. A threat. Neve Connolly is all these things.

Could she be a murderer?

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Scottish Classic

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

One from my Classics Club list. I loved the first part of the A Scots Quair trilogy, Sunset Song, when I re-read it a couple of years ago. When I first read the trilogy many years ago, I remember not being as impressed by the other two books, but I’m hoping my older self might appreciate them more. We’ll see…

The Blurb says: A powerful and evocative saga of Scottish life through three decades, Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s magnificent trilogy moves from the years of The Great War to the hungry Thirties. From the hills of Kinraddie and the jute mills by Segget Water to the grey granite walls of Duncairn, A Scots Quair tells the life of a woman and the story of a people. This is the second novel in the trilogy A Scots Quair which continues to follow the life of Chris Guthrie as she embarks on her second marriage to the minister Robert Colquhoun.

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Crime

A Darker Domain by Val McDermid

I’m reading the Karen Pirie series all out of order but it doesn’t seem to be lessening my enjoyment of them – each one so far has worked well as a standalone. This is the second, and it’s been sitting on my Kindle for over two years… 

The Blurb says: Twenty-five years ago, the daughter of the richest man in Scotland and her baby son were kidnapped and held to ransom. But Catriona Grant ended up dead and little Adam’s fate has remained a mystery ever since. When a new clue is discovered in a deserted Tuscan villa – along with grisly evidence of a recent murder – cold case expert DI Karen Pirie is assigned to follow the trail.

She’s already working a case from the same year. During the Miners’ Strike of 1984, pit worker Mick Prentice vanished. He was presumed to have broken ranks and fled south with other ‘scabs’… but Karen finds that the reported events of that night don’t add up. Where did he really go? And is there a link to the Grant mystery?

The truth is stranger – and far darker – than fiction.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

sunset song 2A Scottish lament…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This first volume of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair, focuses on the life of Chris Guthrie, daughter of a tenant farmer in the fictional estate of Kinraddie in the north-east of Scotland, before and during the First World War. Sunset Song, written in 1932, is generally considered the strongest book in the trilogy and one of the greatest Scottish novels of the twentieth century. Although it’s written in a form of the dialect of the area, it’s been pretty heavily anglicised so that it keeps the rhythms without being too hard for non-Scots (or modern Scots) to understand. There’s a heavy sprinkling of old Scots words, but also a glossary of them should the meaning not be obvious from the context.

Chris is born the daughter of John Guthrie of Blawearie, a farmer hardened by the lifelong struggle to wrest a living from the land, and Jean, a woman worn down by years of pregnancies and childbirth. John is a harsh father to his sons, demanding hard labour and unquestioning obedience, and exacting cruel physical punishment when angered, while Jean can do nothing but watch passively. But Chris shows signs of academic intelligence, and it is John’s wish, and her own, that she be educated and get away from the land to become a teacher. All this changes when first Jean and then John die, leaving the family broken up and Chris as the inheritor of the farm. Now with the money to leave and make a new life for herself, Chris realises the land is in her blood – she wonders how she could ever have thought to leave it and to take up a career that would deny her the joys of marriage and children.

Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year
Agyness Deyn as Chris in the new movie adaptation due out later this year

And so she marries young Ewan Tavendale and together they are content to farm their land, Chris’ happiness enhanced when she bears her first son. But the world is changing and over in Europe war clouds are gathering. And during the four years of fighting, life for Chris and for this entire community will be changed forever.

Chae jumped up when she finished, he said Damn’t, folk, we’ll all have the whimsies if we listen to any more woesome songs! Have none of you a cheerful one? And the folk in the barn laughed at him and shook their heads, it came on Chris how strange was the sadness of Scotland’s singing, made for the sadness of the land and sky in dark autumn evenings, the crying of men and women of the land who had seen their lives and loves sink away in the years, things wept for beside the sheep-ouchts, remembered at night and in twilight. The gladness and kindness had passed, lived and forgotten, it was Scotland of the mist and rain and the crying sea that made the songs.

The book is essentially a lament for the passing of a way of life. Gibbon shows how the war hurried the process along, but he also indicates how change was happening anyway, with increasing mechanisation of farms, the landowners gradually driving the tenant farmers off as they found more profitable uses for the land, the English-ing of education leading to the loss of the old language and with it, old traditions. Although the cruelties and hardships of the old ways are shown to the full, he also portrays the sense of community, of neighbour supporting neighbour when the need arises. And he gives a great feeling of the relative isolation of these communities, far distant from the seat of power and with little interest in anything beyond their own lives. But here too he suggests things are changing, with some of the characters flirting with the new socialist politics of the fledgling Labour Party.

It took me a good third of the book to really find myself involved in the story. It begins with a long introduction to all the characters and a potted history of the area. While there’s some great writing and quite a lot of humour in this section, I found it was trying to cover too much and I didn’t really get a feel for most of the characters – which was a problem that remained throughout the book in fact. The main characters become very well realised, but all the others flit in and out and I never felt fully on top of who they were or how they related to each other. As Chris grows from childhood into young womanhood, there is a major emphasis on her awakening sexuality, with some writing which I feel must have been considered pretty shocking in its time, including allusions to rape and incest.

But suddenly, at the point where Chris finds herself alone and independent, the book turns into something quite wonderful. The story of Chris and Ewan falling in love and marrying is full of emotional truth. This isn’t a great romance – this is two young people setting out to make a life for themselves and their inevitable children, farming the land in continuity with the generations before them and assuming they will hand it on in turn to the next, and making the adjustments that any couple must when the realities of living with another person don’t quite match up to the dream.

Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie
Peter Mullan as, I assume, John Guthrie, also from the forthcoming movie

It lingered at the back of her mind, dark, like a black cat creeping at the back of a hedge, she saw the fluff of its fur or the peek of its eyes, a wild and sinister thing in the sunlight; but you would not look often or see those eyes, how they glared at you. He was going out there, where the sky was a troubled nightmare and the earth shook night and day, into the lands of the coarse French folk, her Ewan, her lad with his dark, dear face and that quick, blithe blush. And suddenly she was filled with a weeping pity in her heart for him, a pity that brought no tears to her eyes, he must never see her shed tears all the time he was with her, he’d go out to the dark, far land with memories of her and Blawearie that were shining and brave and kind.

Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Lewis Grassic Gibbon

And when war begins, Gibbon handles beautifully the gradual change within the community, from feeling completely detached and uninvolved to slowly finding their lives affected in every way. As the men begin to either volunteer or, later, be conscripted into the Army, each character reacts differently but truly to the personality Gibbon has so carefully created for them. Some of the writing is heart-breaking in its emotional intensity but never overloaded with mawkishness or sentimentality. Gibbon touches on questions that must still have been hugely sensitive so soon after one war and with another already looming – conscientious objection and desertion – and asks not for forgiveness for his characters but for understanding and empathy. The ending echoes the beginning, as Gibbon again takes us round the community showing the irrevocable changes wrought by war and modernisation on each family – some winners, some losers, but none unaltered. And as he brings his characters together one last time, we see them begin to gather the strength to face their uncertain future in a world that will never be the same again.

A brilliant book that fully deserves its reputation. Highly recommended, though I should warn you I sobbed solidly through most of the second half…

Book 9
Book 9

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