Scotsman literary critic Stuart Kelly’s verdict on the best 50 Scottish books of the last five decades.
John Aberdein, Amande’s Bed, 2006
Around Peem, a wee boy in 1950s Aberdeen, orbits a continental cast of communists, refugees, drop-outs and outcasts. Aberdein’s polyphonic novel has set piece scenes that are outrageously good – a translation of Rabelais in particular – but the whole is informed by a glinting political consciousness and a linguistic deftness encompassing Doric, Scots and English as a second tongue.
Kate Atkinson, Life After Life, 2013
The title does not just refer to the repeated lives of the heroine Ursula Todd (Tod is German for death, and Ursula dies just a few pages in... Only to live again and die again). It is also about afterlives and consequences. Ursula, whose lives cover the 20th century, is an incarnation of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence, and strives to find the life where, if she had to live exactly again, she could joyfully accept doing so.
Iain Banks, The Bridge, 1986
Banks always referred to The Bridge as “the intellectual of the family” and it is a dazzling piece of work. Three narratives – a barbarian in a fantastical realm of myth, a man living in a bridge the size of a city with a totalitarian government and Alex, who has benefited from and is cursed by Thatcher’s affluence – intersect and intercut with each other. What is dream and what is reality?
Iain M Banks, Excession, 1996
The Culture’s artificial intelligence minds confront a black perfect sphere they call the Excession, which seems to be older than the universe itself. If that wasn’t enough of a conundrum, they have to deal with a race so sadistic they are called The Affront. With typical wit and imagination, Banks delivers a science fiction story which asks how far a liberal society will go to defend its liberalism.
William Boyd, The New Confessions, 1989
This maximalist fiction follows John James Todd from his birth in Edinburgh, to the trenches of World War One, Berlin, Hollywood and eventual exile in the Mediterranean, and features an attempt to make a film of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions. The novel deals with patriotism and personal integrity, political and domestic betrayals, and how the camera reveals and lies.
Christopher Brookmyre, One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, 1999
Christopher Brookmyre’s plot-driven novels gnash at issues of corruption and social justice with leftist satirical bite. In the Die Hard-inspired One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Brookmyre invites a host of intriguing characters to a school reunion on an oil rig, repurposed as a holiday resort and a prime target for a bunch of hapless mercenary terrorists. What’s the worst that could happen?
George Mackay Brown, Magnus, 1973
Mackay Brown, an Orcadian, saw time as sea-like, changeless and in constant change, a succession of waves and ripples, and nowhere is this better expressed than in Magnus, where medieval martyrdom and murder expands out from its stark specific details into universal significance. The lyricism of the language is equalled by the precise structure, as perfect and absurd as a gothic arch.
John Burnside, Glister, 2008
Nobody creates modern myths like John Burnside. Near abandoned factories, teenagers hunt evasive mutants; sometimes these children disappear. To peer too closely at what is happening might lead the local policeman to “either hell or salvation”. Burnside is Scotland’s David Lynch, fusing the horrific and the banal, smudging the line between the inexplicable and the everyday.
Andrew Crumey, Pfitz, 1997
Scotland’s most European novelist creates an intricate and ingenious puzzle-box in Pfitz, where an insane but ingenuous Prince devotes his entire country and its wealth to the creation of Rreinnstadt, a city which exists only on paper. Towards the city meander Pfitz and his master, discussing the nature of reality en route. Crumey is Scotland’s equivalent of Borges and Calvino and Perec.
Anne Donovan, Buddha Da, 2003
The charm of Anne Donovan’s novel is not just in its conceit: Jimmy, a painter and decorator from the West, suddenly decides that life is suffering, desire is the cause of suffering and Buddha is the way. It’s not his first enthusiasm, but it is the one that causes most pain to his wife and child. But in delightful Scots, Donovan catches a crisis, a resolution, an affair and a transformation.
Michel Faber, Under The Skin, 2000
The monsters in the Highlands are not in Loch Ness, but picking up hitchhikers on the A9. In Michel Faber’s eerie first novel, bodies are morphed and consumed, damaged and deranged as the alien protagonist harvests the itinerant and the wandering. Crisp and stealthy prose clinically unravels the paradox of a monster becoming human both physiologically and psychologically.
Jenni Fagan, The Panopticon, 2011
Jenni Fagan was listed as one of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists for her debut. The Panopticon features Anais Hendricks – the fact that both names are brands is both tragic and joyous – a girl in care who couldn’t care less. Is she an experiment for paranormal powers? Is she a danger to herself or to others? This powerful novel undercuts assumptions and tugs heart-strings.
George Friel, Mr Alfred MA, 1972
Mr Alfred is a sensitive elderly schoolteacher who spirals into madness through a combination of drink, the rejection of his poetry and an unwise infatuation with a pupil. Friel’s tragic novel unfolds against an apocalyptic backdrop of feral gangs and fearful graffiti, and achieves a Joycean linguistic inventiveness as Alfred’s values, beliefs and even words begin to fall apart.
Janice Galloway, The Trick Is To Keep Breathing, 1989
The ironically named Joy Stone is a schoolteacher attempting to fend off depression in Galloway’s startling debut novel. She is assailed by grief, bolstered and bruised by alcohol. Using typographical innovations, parodies of women’s magazines and finely-grained observation, the novel presents a searing portrait of a mind in crisis and offers the possibility of hope in its darkest moments.
Alasdair Gray, Lanark, 1981
Lanark begins with Book III – already the reader knows they are in the hands of an author willing to subvert and stretch the novel in many ways. The story of Duncan Thaw, a disaffected art student, is wrapped inside the story of Lanark, a man afflicted with dragonhide disease in an eerie, twilit city. Reality and fantasy clash, Glasgow is reborn and the author makes an unexpected appearance.
Archie Hind, The Dear Green Place, 1966
Glasgow, the dear green place of the title, is not perhaps the most fertile of environments, at least as far as the novel’s central character is concerned. Mat Craig is a decent working class young man with literary ambitions. These are, however, variously stifled and suppressed: he works as a slaughterman since writing won’t pay the bills. This is an anxious, plaintive study of creativity.
Stuart Hood, A Den Of Foxes, 1991
A former controller of BBC television, Hood was also a novelist of distinction, and this avant garde investigation into war, games and war games is a work of supreme ingenuity. Peter Sinclair meditates on his time behind Italian lines in WW2 when he starts playing war games; in a science fiction story he writes, the narrator plays games written by a Peter Sinclair about Italian POWs. A knotty fugue of a book, it defies classification.
Robin Jenkins, Fergus Lamont, 1979
Fergus Lamont is a compelling story of personal reinvention that cuts to the quick of the Scottish psyche, posing questions about how we become what we are. Born poor, Fergus adopts a kilt and an aristocratic persona. He has the capacity for both callous disregard and surprising tenderness, and Jenkins offers the possibility of redemption through love even for such a monster of ego as Fergus.
Jackie Kay, Trumpet, 1998
Jackie Kay’s novel is centred on jazz player Joss Moody. His trumpeting has made him famous, but after his death a fact emerges that went very much untrumpeted in his life: he was a woman. Kay deals sensitively with race and gender, with adoption and inheritance, to create a vivid portrayal of love which transcends boundaries and art which unites the most disparate of individuals.
James Kelman, Kieron Smith, Boy, 2008
Scotland’s only Man Booker Prize winner is sometimes seen as a grim and sweary chronicler of the déclassé, yet in Kieron Smith, Boy he shows how subtle and how subversive he is as a novelist. Kieron, whose language grows up as he grows up, is the keyhole through which we see a changing world. Kelman balances the naive and the innocent, idealism and cynicism, to dramatic effect.
James Kennaway, The Mind Benders, 1963
This is an overlooked gem: Major “Ramrod” Hall is assigned to observe Sharpey, a scientist working on the effects of sensory deprivation. Sharpey, apparently, commits suicide and the action turns to his erstwhile assistant, Longman, who has a worrying tendency to self-experimentation. This patient, psychologically astute and chilling novel was also made into a film, with Kennaway’s script.
A L Kennedy, Day, 2007
Winner of the Costa Prize, A L Kennedy’s Day is a novel about war and the trauma of war. A rear gunner finds himself acting in a re-enactment of the prisoner of war camp he was actually imprisoned in; his memories of his brothers-in-arms resurface as he struggles to balance the sense of belonging the war gave him with everything it took from him. Day is a plangent, humane story.
Jessie Kesson, Another Time, Another Place, 1983
Jessie Kesson was an immaculate observer of things, and in Another Time, Another Place she fixes on a clash of cultures between Italian prisoners of war and the crofting community where they are billeted. The result is a poignant and strange story, where the so-called enemy has dreams that cut across the limitations of place and time and transforms a “wifie” to a woman “con amore”.
Frank Kuppner, A Very Quiet Street, 1992
Frank Kuppner is unclassifiable. Is this a novel? A memoir? A psychogeography? A true-crime investigation? Whatever it is, it is unforgettable; a book where Kuppner ruminates on the famous Oscar Slater murder case while haunted by more personal grief. It shows a wide-eyed and stark bemusement about the brute fact of death, the tenacity of memory and the surrealism of the real.
Joan Lingard, The Prevailing Wind, 1964
Better known for her novels for young adults, Lingard is nevertheless an accomplished and inventive writer for adults as well, as this deft and insightful examination of the life of a single mother in Edinburgh amply shows. Lingard portrays Edinburgh at its most intractable and hard-faced, a city of propriety and property, of “husbands who were more Calvinist that Calvin himself”.
Allan Massie, A Question of Loyalties, 1989
What happens when you lose a war? Allan Massie’s profoundly moving and clever novel deals with Vichy France and the moral dilemmas raised by both collaboration and resistance. Using unreliable narrators and fake artefacts, Massie’s tale of a man of dual nationalities raised in South Africa trying to establish the truth about his father “vigorously pushed back the narrowing boundaries of fiction”.
Bernard MacLaverty, Grace Notes, 1997
Catherine McKenna, the composer in MacLaverty’s Man Booker shortlisted novel is stranded in silence between postpartum depression after the birth of her daughter and the death of her abusive, drunk father. This Portrait of the Artist as a Grieving Woman examines how art can be transcendent and cathartic, and in using the Lambeg drums in her work MacLaverty suggests how the Troubles might be aesthetically transformed.
Ken MacLeod, Newton’s Wake, 2004
Imagine a future where faster than light travel is not controlled by liberal boffins but by Glasgow neds. Humanity has slowly fled Earth and mapped its divisions on the cosmos, leaving behind a Glasgow family that discover a skein of wormholes. MacLeod is a formidable imagineer, whose politically savvy sci-fi constantly stretches our assumptions about the future, with wit and sting.
Val McDermid, A Place of Execution, 1999
A girl disappears from an isolated village in Derbyshire, in 1963, a region already living with the fear of missing children. Structured in two parts, this novel first presents a “true-crime” account of the investigation and trial”, and then, as DI George Bennett demands that the account we have read isn’t published, what we know is turned upside down. McDermid explores the difference between justice being done and the truth being laid bare. This is a taut, carefully-paced challenge to the police procedural, concerned with the malleability of our perception of truth and how we choose to deal with malevolence.
William McIlvanney, Docherty, 1975
Forget the “Father of Tartan Noir” tag that has been put on McIlvanney’s work. Docherty, his third novel, is a serious, considered and achingly sympathetic engagement with the people whose only trace in the historical record is birth and death notices. He conjures a mining community as it vanishes with its values. He commemorates a white-knuckled decency and a red-faced self-mastery.
Candia McWilliam, A Case Of Knives, 1987
Arch, flinty and gimlet-eyed, Candia McWilliam’s first novel situates itself in the Scottish tradition of doubles and fissures, justified sinners and unjustified saints. In this book, a gay heart surgeon grooms a woman to become the wife of the man he loves. McWilliam is exact and sly, surreptitious and precise, feline in circling actors, and with a ear perfectly attuned to the word “split”.
James Meek, The People’s Act Of Love, 2005
Meek is a master of the “moral thriller”, novels which combine pacy plotting with thorny questions. In The People’s Act Of Love, set in Siberia after the Russian Revolution he pits utopian fanatics against pragmatic hypocrites in wondering about who should forge the future and how much one can sacrifice before it turns into masochism. Is love a performance (acting) or a decision (an act)?
Denise Mina, Garnethill, 1998
In the hands of Denise Mina, the crime novel has become a scalpel to analyse contemporary society: she is more like Zola than Christie. Her debut, Garnethill, looked stonily at sexual abuse, psychotherapy, cover-ups and the disconnection between what is right and what is legal. In an often macho genre, Mina provides a proper feminist perspective and refreshed a whole form of writing.
Ewan Morrison, Tales From The Mall, 2012
Part fiction, part reportage, part autobiography, part non-fictional survey: Morrison’s book is a splendid melange with a steely eye fixed on one thing: contemporary capitalism. Published in an innovative manner, with films online and extras elsewhere, the reader is conducted around the mall by the most mercurial of narrators and asked again and again – “What price do we pay for all this?”
Maggie O’Farrell, The Hand That First Held Mine, 2009
O’Farrell is often packaged as a chick-lit author, yet the literary devices and incisive wit she deploys in this portrait of the nature of being a parent and the nature of being a child are formidable. Few authors make their narratives as filmic as O’Farrell, with flashbacks and rewinds, zoom ins and fade outs. It packs a hefty emotional punch, and lingers in the mind in a melancholy manner.
Andrew O’Hagan, Our Fathers, 1999
The religious overtones of the title are suffused throughout this elegy for left-wing idealism, in which James Bawn goes back to his dying grandfather, a man who tried to give people their daily bread in terms of high rise housing, and meets again his alcoholic father, whose trespasses might not be forgiven. O’Hagan creates a machine for moral understanding and an affecting plea for empathy.
Agnes Owens, Gentlemen of the West, 1984
These gentlemen are not, perhaps, so gentle in Owens’ novel. With prose that reads like someone whispering through gritted teeth, she depicts and unpicks a society where behind every big man is a struggling woman. This is a visceral and poignant portrait of lives not lived to their full potential by a writer who bears comparison with Raymond Carver, and whose truths are both blunt and sharp.
Ian Rankin, Black and Blue, 1997
Tartan Noir at its darkest, Ian Rankin’s eighth Rebus novel has his depressive detective engage with one of Scotland’s most notorious cases, the serial killer Bible John. Rankin has always chafed against the conventional solution of crime novels, and here we have a book where justice is delivered by monsters not saints, where the officials are powerless and where evil is both elusive and flagrant.
James Robertson, Joseph Knight, 2003
The past, in the novels of James Robertson, is not just, as William Faulkner said, “not even past “. It is urgent, pressing and angry. In telling the story of a black slave who argued for his freedom in Scotland, Robertson strips veils of smugness from the uncomfortable reality and gives a dignity back to his absent central character. Polemics and poetics coincide in this brave and bitter reckoning.
Iain Crichton Smith, Consider The Lilies, 1968
This fine and tight historical novel asks a question the historical novel often eschews: is this inevitable? Set during the Clearances, we have the elderly Mrs Scott, disillusioned by the Kirk’s certainties and complicities. Crichton Smith weaves a story about possibilities untaken and chances unsought, the constraints that are imposed from outwith and within, to devastating effect.
Alexander McCall Smith, 44 Scotland Street, 2005
Like a ray of sunshine on a rainy day, McCall Smith has the capacity to lighten the heart, surprise the eyes and make the corners of your lips tug up involuntarily. His Maupin-esque serial novels have delighted and consoled in equal measure, and the character of Bertie, the unwilling recipient of parental pomposity, has struck a chord with thousands. The Broons and Dickens in one.
Ali Smith, Hotel World, 2001
Ali Smith’s writing is as effervescent as champagne and as scorching as bath-tub gin. Hotel World is a novel of short stories, with a homeless woman, a hotel critic, a receptionist, the ghost of a chambermaid and the maid’s sister reflecting the five stage stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Smith shows that the possibilities of the avant-garde are not exhausted.
Muriel Spark, Loitering With Intent, 1981
All of Spark’s novels are stiletto-sharp and icicle-cold, and Loitering With Intent shows her at her frosty, pointed best. Fleur Talbot takes a job ghosting memoirs with Sir Quentin Oliver’s Autobiographical Association, and finds that he has devilish plans for how to use the information his members reveal. Spark sets truth against fiction and crime against sin in a parable of ethics.
Alan Spence, The Magic Flute, 1990
The poet Norman McCaig may have coined the term Zen Calvinism, but it the Glaswegian born Spence who exemplifies it. This story of four young men’s interconnected lives takes in the counterculture of psychedelia and spirituality and the establishment of the army and the twisted orthodoxies of sectarianism, in limpid, graceful language. Spence has a startling capacity for empathy, seen to aching effect here.
Emma Tennant, The Bad Sister, 1978
Much of Tennant’s work is an extended riff on the Caledonian split psyche, from Hogg’s Justified Sinner, through Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde to R D Laing’s divided self. Here, the form of the novel reflects the doubling and fissuring, part narrated by an editor trying to understand the death of Michael Dalzell and his daughter, part narrated by Jane, Michael’s illegitimate daughter and, we assume (at our peril) the murderer.
Alice Thompson, Justine, 1996
Erotic and obsessive, a nameless art collector and opium-eater becomes enthralled by the classical beauty Justine and her angry twin Juliette. Reality and dreams, art and life merge and blur in this gothic fable, where nothing is ever as it seems. Thompson writes like a Caledonian Angela Carter, with overtones of both Oscar Wilde and the Marquis de Sade.
Jeff Torrington, Swing, Hammer, Swing, 1992
A man in a diving suit walks out of a Glasgow cinema. Very few people find this strange in Torrington’s sad and quirky novel, where the odd often interrupts the everyday. Thomas Clay seems to be vacillating but has made a decision that will affect him and his family; as he reminisces and regrets the reader is insightfully taken to a city of boozers and philosophes, drunks and gurus.
Alan Warner, Morvern Callar, 1995
Alan Warner’s eponymous heroine is a singular creation; both ruthless and guileless, calculating and chaotic, open to what life has to offer and very aware of the proximity of death. Her parochial life is transformed when she passes off her late boyfriend’s novel as her own and Warner effortlessly moves between the uncanny and the specific in this strangest of coming of age stories.
Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting, 1993
Begbie, Sick Boy and Renton have become icons, but if you only know Danny Boyle’s film with Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle then it’s time to pick up the book. In many ways it is more shocking, more disturbing and much funnier. Welsh’s fragmentary narrative mirrors the chaotic lives of his protagonists, and combines unflinching realism with hallucinatory surrealism.
Louise Welsh, The Cutting Room, 2002
Tartan noir meets gothic erotica in Welsh’s accomplished debut, and many readers still wish for a return of her intriguing amateur detective, Rilke. A house-clearer and street-drifter, the gay Rilke brought issues of homosexuality into the sometimes defiantly macho Scottish novel. Welsh neatly parallels Rilke’s discovery of snuffish photographs with the nature of the crime novel itself.