Book review: The Interpretations by David Shaw Mackenzie

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David Shaw Mackenzie’s second novel begins with an assault, followed by another and then by a police siege in which the perpetrator of these assaults is shot. This is followed by the mysterious disappearance of the first victim.

The Interpretations

by David Shaw Mackenzie

Sandstone Press, 324pp, £8.99

The general opinion, and the police view, is that he has committed suicide by jumping off a new bridge over a firth – a bridge which has already seen others leap to their death. At least one of his friends is not convinced that he is dead.

This intriguing opening may lead you to expect a crime novel. Yet, while there is indeed a mystery to be unravelled, The Interpretations doesn’t fit into this category. The mystery is neat enough and necessary. It is one of the things which keeps a rather thin plot moving, and enables it to reach a conclusion, but one cannot think it the aspect of the book in which the author is most interested. Indeed there would still be an engaging novel without it. Violence drops out after the opening chapter, only the memory of it remaining.

Instead we have a social novel, and one in which comedy predominates. The setting is a small town in the Highlands, a place where the memory of the Clearances is still alive, at least for the elderly parish minister, the Rev J P McFerran, whose church is crumbling and congregation withering. He has been a campaigner against the building of the impressive new bridge, which has deprived a ferryman of his livelihood, four construction workers of their lives, and provided an opportunity for suicides. But Mr McFerran is out of tune with the times. It is 1980 and most of the local inhabitants think the bridge will bring jobs and prosperity to the town. So indeed it does, though, as with most such developments it kills off other things too, small shops for instance.

The minister is one of the main characters, and one who becomes more sympathetic as we get to know him, especially after he has retired to an old folks’ home, where he refuses to have a room with a view of the bridge. The other principal character is Jim Fisher, known as Weet, a journalist on the local paper. Beginning as a figure from stock casting – cynical, yet ambitious, hard-drinking, irreverent – he grows in stature over the 20-year span of the novel, during which time he gives up alcohol and comes to have an appreciation of goodness and decency, as well as a good deal of common sense. He retains a contemptuous attitude to much of his work, especially when he has to do a spell as the paper’s astrologer, Miss Crystal, and not a line is written of the novel he was going to write; but the author makes it clear that he is actually a competent journalist, and much of the comedy comes from the scenes set in the newspaper office, where Weet has the necessary ability to turn out the requisite number of words on time, no matter what the subject.

The social comedy is well-judged and agreeable, the picture of a small town experiencing economic change and gradually losing the sense of its own past – which is, again amusingly if also sadly, being replaced by a manufactured false idea of heritage – is a piece of intelligent and sympathetic observation. Shaw Mackenzie is also aware that much of what is believed about the past is wrong, even if it is such beliefs that may provide a town or community with its sense of identity. The proprietor of the local pub, for instance, has the idea of attracting tourists by creating a “Bonnie Prince Charlie Experience”, until Weet points out that actually this was Mackenzie country and the Mackenzies mostly backed the Hanoverians, not the Jacobites.

The novel poses the question: is memory enriching or a weight from which we should try to free ourselves? It is this question, never so crudely put, which holds the novel together, linking the social theme with the cause of the mysterious disappearance of the victim of that assault in the first chapter. The plot itself is cleverly resolved, but the question is left unanswered, which is as it should be, for novels properly invite such reflection rather than seeking to provide answers. The Interpretations is an agreeably leisurely book, engaging and holding the reader’s attention. It contrives to be both amusing and at times moving.