The Kiln by William McIlvanney

A man and a nation…

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When we first meet him, Tam Docherty, the first person narrator, is on his way from his home in Grenoble back to Graithnock, the Ayrshire town where he was born and bred. As he travels, he is visited by memories of his childhood and adolescence, his later life and marriage, but mostly of the summer of 1955 when, between leaving school and going to University, he worked in the local brickworks for a few months, and learned a little about life, girls and himself.

Tam is the grandson of the first Tam who was the central character in Docherty, McIlvanney’s earlier book set before and after WW1. In that book, the first Tam was determined that his son, Conn, would not follow him down the mines – that Conn would get an education and raise himself out of the hard-scrabble hand-to-mouth existence of his forebears. Older Tam’s dreams took a little longer to be realised, and it’s with young Tam, Conn’s son, that we see the first generation of the family go to university and move out of the working class, economically at least.

In large part a coming-of-age story, the present of the book, published in 1996, also shows us Tam in middle-age, contrasting the hopes and dreams of his seventeen-year-old self with the reality of how his life has turned out. Tam’s early story, I would guess, is heavily autobiographical – he is a working-class lad from a fictionalised version of McIlvanney’s birth town of Kilmarnock, with an education and aspirations to be a writer. The later years, I suspect, diverge more from actual events in McIlvanney’s life, but read very much as though we are reading his personal reflections, and perhaps glimpsing his own feelings of disappointment that life hadn’t turned out quite as glitteringly as he’d once dared to hope.

However, Tam’s story reflects the lives of so many Scots of his generation that it also tells the story of the nation in the latter half of the twentieth century. Growing up in the ‘50s in a country that had emerged from the second devastating war of the century determined that this time we really would make a better world, Tam had opportunities no previous generation of working class children had, not the least of which was free university education. For many families like Tam’s, this would be the first time when social mobility was a real possibility, with graduates able to lift themselves out of the pits and shipyards and factories into teaching, medicine, law. But McIlvanney shows the disconnect this caused for many between their working class roots and their middle class ambitions. As Tam, the wee lad from Graithnock, becomes Tom, Master of Arts, a teacher and writer, he sits uneasily between the two classes, neither fully one nor the other, and perhaps he never truly believes that he deserves the life he’s now living. As a result, he seems unable to avoid wrecking everything he achieves. And his feelings of personal failure mirror those of the nation, as those dreams of the ‘50s fade into the industrial devastation of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with Scotland too left disillusioned and angry.

The book is a wonderful mix of humour, nostalgia and pathos. Young Tam, with whom we spend by far the most time, is on the cusp of adulthood and in the midst of a desperate and very funny quest to lose his virginity. Although the period is a couple of decades earlier than my own teen years, I found the attitudes and social manners entirely recognisable, and described with real warmth and affection. It’s a man’s world, for sure, but the women are strong and opinionated, and give as good as they get. It’s Tam’s mother who is the driving force for him to go to University – his father, like so many men of that time, is struggling with the idea that his son won’t follow in his footsteps. Again, McIlvanney uses them to show the two opposing forces faced by the youth of that era – the push to leap into the adventure of the unknown, the pull to stay in the safety of the familiar.

William McIlvanney

I found middle-aged Tom just as believable, though less entertaining. His disappointment leads him to be argumentative and confrontational, to the point of driving away those closest to him. However, his journey home reminds him of who he once was and what his hopes were, and gives him time and space to reflect on who he now is and, to a degree, on what Scotland now is. I wondered how the tone might have changed had McIlvanney written the book ten or twenty years later, when his personal stature had grown to the point where almost every Scottish writer points to him as an influence, and when Scotland had achieved its own Parliament and revived its sense of national identity. But that would have been a different book, and not necessarily a better one. Another excellent novel from the pen of the Scottish master – an insightful and enjoyable look at a man and, through his story, at a nation. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 180…

Episode 180…

Well, the TBR has neither risen nor fallen, remaining at the astonishingly low figure of 228. I’m sure that at last I have achieved a perfect sense of balance…

Here’s a few more I should be spinning through soon…

Fiction

For my sadly neglected 5 x 5 Challenge. William McIlvanney’s hugely influential Laidlaw trilogy means that he’s probably best known as a crime writer, but in reality the bulk of his work was literary fiction.  This one is a loose follow-up to Docherty, taking up the story of a grandson of the original Docherty and moving forward in time to the mid-twentieth century…

The Blurb says: Tom Docherty was 17 in the summer of 1955. With school behind him and a summer job at a brick works, Tom had his whole life before him. Years later, alone in a rented flat in Edinburgh and lost in memories, Tom recalls the intellectual and sexual awakening of his youth. In looking back, Tom discovers that only by understanding where he comes from can he make sense of his life as it is now.

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Crime

Courtesy of Michael Joseph via NetGalley. Having been immersed in vintage crime for the last few months, I’m beginning to feel a craving for some contemporary crime (but not identikit domestic misery-fests!). This sounds intriguing…

The Blurb says: Twenty-four years ago Katharina Haugen went missing. All she left behind was her husband Martin and a mysterious string of numbers scribbled on a piece of paper. Every year on October 9th Chief Inspector William Wisting takes out the files to the case he was never able to solve. Stares at the code he was never able to crack. And visits the husband he was never able to help. But now Martin Haugen is missing too.

As Wisting prepares to investigate another missing persons case he’s visited by a detective from Oslo. Adrian Stiller is convinced Martin’s involved in another disappearance of a young woman and asks Wisting to close the net around Martin. But is Wisting playing cat and mouse with a dangerous killer or a grief-stricken husband who cannot lay the past to rest?

Set between the icy streets and dark forests of Norway, The Katharina Code is a heart-stopping story of one man’s obsession with his coldest case. Atmospheric, gripping and suspenseful; this is Nordic Noir at its very best.

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Vintage Crime

Courtesy of the British Library. But I’m not giving up on vintage crime! In fact, I’ve built up a little backlog, so I’m going to spend December having a little mini-splurge of Dickens and vintage crime – doesn’t that sound fun? This one is by Julian Symons, who seems to be rather better known these days for his often critical analysis of other Golden Age authors than for his own writing. Always risky setting yourself up as both an author and a critic – I shall have my red pencil ready… 😉

The Blurb says: John Wilkins meets a beautiful, irresistible girl, and his world is turned upside down. Looking at his wife, and thinking of the girl, everything turns red before his eyes – the colour of murder.

But did he really commit the heinous crime he was accused of? Told innovatively in two parts: the psychiatric assessment of Wilkins and the trial for suspected murder on the Brighton seafront, Symons’ award-winning mystery tantalizes the reader with glimpses of the elusive truth and makes a daring exploration of the nature of justice itself.

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Fiction on Audio

I read this thousands of years ago when the world and I were young, but I remember very little about it now. So I thought it would be fun to listen to the audio version, narrated by Jonathan Pryce…

The Blurb says: From the bestselling author of Rebecca, another classic set in beautiful and mysterious Cornwall.

Orphaned at an early age, Philip Ashley is raised by his benevolent older cousin, Ambrose. Resolutely single, Ambrose delights in Philip as his heir, a man who will love his grand home as much as he does himself. But the cosy world the two construct is shattered when Ambrose sets off on a trip to Florence. There he falls in love and marries – and there he dies suddenly. In almost no time at all, the new widow – Philip’s cousin Rachel – turns up in England. Despite himself, Philip is drawn to this beautiful, sophisticated, mysterious woman like a moth to the flame. And yet… might she have had a hand in Ambrose’s death?

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?