A salute to the novels, memoirs and poetry that made it a vintage year for Scottish letters

AL Kennedy: her latest novel, The Blue Book, is sad, funny and a tour de force of manipulation. Picture: Ian Georgeson
AL Kennedy: her latest novel, The Blue Book, is sad, funny and a tour de force of manipulation. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Have your say

ACCORDING to the estimable judges of the 2011 Man Booker Prize, there were no Scottish novels this year worthy of being on their longlist.

This year, admittedly, has not been the most glorious in the history of the Booker – feuds, rival prizes and London publishers being compared to the KGB by the chair of the judges, former MI5 chief and purveyor of potboilers, Dame Stella Rimington – but up here in Scotland, I think we realised slightly earlier than most that something was a bit askew at the Booker. It’s not “best wee nation in the world”-ism to suggest that 2011 has been a vintage year in Scottish letters.

AL Kennedy’s The Blue Book (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) was a tour-de-force of manipulation. Set on a cruise ship, the central character, Beth, arrives with one man – her stolid boyfriend Derek – and leaves with another – the mercurial Arthur, with whom she used to work as a medium. It is a novel that inhabits the idea of mediums profoundly: it does nothing less than perform a “cold reading” on the reader, and hides its final revelation in full sight.

It is Kennedy’s most intricate novel, but her fearful emotional Realpolitik and caustic, heartfelt comedy are given full rein. The cadenza on the nature of love – beginning with gentleness, ending with a blow to the partner’s head with a table-lamp – is one of the funniest and saddest pieces of prose I’ve read all year.

Ali Smith’s There But For The (Hamish Hamilton, £16.99) is her most expansive work to date, but continues her interests in the transgressive encounter (in this novel, it is a dinner party guest who locks himself in an upstairs room between the main course and dessert – not pudding – and then refuses to come out) and the ways in which we are betrayed by our language and betray language itself. Smith adopts a more aggrieved satirical tone in this novel: the very fact that the ghastly couple are called “Gen” and “Eric” sums up Smith’s uncompromising attitude towards self-stereotypes.

John Burnside’s A Summer Of Drowning (Jonathan Cape, £16.99) forms a kind of trilogy with his previous two novels, in that each of them ask questions about the violence necessary for redemption and the way in which reality is perforated with the inexplicable. Burnside is one of our leading poets, and his words are placed with exquisite precision (the title has caused some confusion, and yet that indefinite “a” summer is loaded with significance). It is the perfect un-thriller: the reader knows what will happen at the outset, and the joy and horror of the book is watching how the inevitable occurs.

Janice Galloway does not like All Made Up (Granta, £16.99) to be referred to as a memoir. It’s a non-fiction novel, perhaps, or a narrative crafted around facts. Setting its precise taxonomy aside, the sequel to This Is Not About Me is another work of clear-sighted psychological archaeology. Whereas in the first volume, Galloway herself was the marginalised and overlooked child, in All Made Up she is an active teenage presence. The impact of cosmetics and contraception on Saltcoats seems to herald a revolution, but Galloway is always alert to how freedoms come with unforeseen prices.

Simon Stephenson’s incredibly affecting memoir, Let Not The Waves Of The Sea (John Murray, £16.99), has a double focus: a reconstruction of the life of his brother Dominic and the family’s attempts to rebuild their lives after Dominic’s death in the Boxing Day Tsunami on 2004. A number of the reviews commented on the “manfulness” of Stephenson’s book, and it is a welcome and intriguing sign of the changing nature of the Scottish male psyche that the bravery of the book manifests itself in utter openness and a profound articulation of love, rather than tight-lipped repression. Both Galloway and Stephenson show that the simplification of gender roles has been unalterably changed.

In crime fiction, 2011 saw the publication of two superlative crime books by two of Scotland’s most successful proponents of the genre – Denise Mina’s second Alex Morrow novel, The End Of The Wasp Season (Orion, £10.99) and Ian Rankin’s second Malcolm Fox novel, The Impossible Dead (Orion, £18.99). Taken together, the books show the sheer range of what the crime genre can do, and how it goes about doing it. These are novels which can be analytical about both contemporary social malaises and the impact of historical miscarriages and injustices.

Mina’s new novel addresses the financial crisis, mega-rich bonuses and the toxic nature of inequality face-on, and also tackles suicide in a frank and shocking manner. In the second volume dealing with the Complaints and Conduct Department of Lothian and Borders Police, Fox’s posting to Fife opens up an investigation into a past crime, dealing with a fictionalised version of the death of SNP politician Willie McRae.

In each book, the detective is a far cry from the ciphers that often populate crime fiction. Mina’s mardy, four-months pregnant DS Morrow is both brittle and vulnerable; Fox – in so many ways the anti-Rebus – has developed into a fully realised character in his own right, despite the seemingly insurmountable hindrances Rankin has placed on him (in short, he’s made a virtue out of slight, decent dullness). Chandler famously described his detective as a “shop-soiled Galahad”, and it is fascinating how modern writers are moving away from such blatant mythologising.

Crime also featured heavily in one of the year’s best science fiction novels. Although there was no new work by Iain Banks or Ken MacLeod this year (their new novels, Stonemouth and Intrusion respectively, are due next year) Charles Stross’s Rule 34 (Orbit, £12.99) more than made up the shortfall. In part a brilliant deconstruction of the police procedural novel – with more data-crunching and fewer strokes of genius – it was also a stunning study of our reliance on, and fantasies in, cyberspace. What really makes Stross’s work stand out is the technical accomplishment with which he deploys literary decisions (such as writing in the second person) for wholly new reasons.

Not science-fiction per se, but rather fantasy, Alan Campbell’s Sea Of Ghosts (Tor. £16.99) started a new trilogy, with the shuddering concept of a world where sea-water is poison. From that eerie outset, Campbell weaves a world in which sorcerers and telepaths and magical weapons all build up into a fantasia about quantum physics and entropy.

In the popular history market, two works stood out: Douglas Jackson’s Defender Of Rome (Bamtam, £12.99) carries on the story of Valerius Verrens, newly returned from the Roman engagement with Boudicca and tasked by the increasingly mad Nero to root out an internal enemy: the new Christus sect and its leader Petrus. Vivid and brisk, Jackson has carved out a niche for his Roman stories despite competition from Sutcliffe, Graves and Massie.

Robyn Young’s Insurrection (Hodder, £7.99) is the first in another trilogy, with Robert the Bruce as the central character. Given the events are fixed in historical fiction, the trick is to find supplementary reasons for actions, and Young’s conceit – that Edward I is trying to capture four relics (one of which is the Stone of Destiny) – gives a great ulterior motivation. The learning is never cumbersome, a deft trick when describing medieval warfare in all its clunking barbarism.

As the critic David Shields has pointed out, “non-fiction” is a weird category (he compares it to a drawer labelled “non-socks”) and some of the best non-fiction is the least easy to categorise. Poet and academic Robert Crawford’s The Beginning And The End Of The World (Birlinn, £16.99) was an intellectually nimble book, dealing with St Andrews, photography, evolutionary theory, the Great Disruption and kaleidoscopes, linking its heterogeneous topics through a group of singular Victorian thinkers based in St Andrews.

No-one quite knows what to make of Julian Assange: The Unauthorised Aautobiography (Canongate, £20), written by the essayist and novelist Andrew O’Hagan, except, I suspect, that the prose is rather more revealing and nuanced than the subject might care for.

Roger Hutchinson’s The Silent Weaver (Birlinn, 9.99) examined the life of the “outsider artist” Angus MacPhee, who produced works of breathtaking, iconic power while detained in Craig Dunain Psychiatric Hospital in Inverness. Although Hutchinson doesn’t penetrate the mystery of MacPhee, he is eloquent about the mystery itself.

Finally, at the beginning of the year, Liz Lochhead was made the second Makar of Scotland, so it was fitting that her delightful New and Selected Poems, wryly entitled A Choosing (Polygon, £9.99), was published at the end of the year. As it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of Sorley MacLean, it was equally fitting that the magisterial new Collected Poems (Polygon, £25) appeared.

There were several new collections of poetry over which I’ve pondered and which have provided me with hours of enjoyment, notably David Kinloch’s artful homage Finger Of A Frenchman (Carcanet, £9.95), Peter McCarey’s dazzling Collected Contraptions (carcanet, £14.95) and JO Morgan’s wonderful Long Cuts (CB Editions, £7.99).

But the real revelation for this year’s poetry is undoubtedly Rachel Boast’s Sidereal (Picador, £8.99). Her lines, from “On Reading Lowell’s Imitations of Sappho” seem to me to capture exactly what poetry does best: “just as a poem / when at last it finds its true form / seems as though it’s been written before”.