Book review: A Street Shaken by Light, by James Buchan

This unlikely yarn about an 18th century adventurer may strain credulity at times, writes Allan Massie, but there’s a light-footed whimsicality about it that keeps the reader engaged

James Buchan
James Buchan

James Buchan has been an occasional novelist, always an interesting and unusual one. His first novel was published in 1984 – it won the Whitbread Fiction Prize; his seventh and most recent came out in 2012. He has also written about Adam Smith, Money, the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment and the Scottish financial adventurer John Law, this last a deeply researched and fascinating study, and a History of the Iranian Revolution and its consequences. Meanwhile he also farms in Norfolk and, to my happy surprise, has not only published his first novel for ten years but announces it as the first in a six book series, recounting the history of a Scottish or perhaps Franco-Scottish family.

A Street Shaken by Light is a first person account of William Neilson’s life and adventures from the age of 16, when he travelled from Edinburgh to Paris seeking a position in the Royal Bank of France, recently and most ambitiously established by that same John Law of Lauriston. Unfortunately, he arrives just as the bank collapses and Law has to flee the country, having spent just one evening introducing young William to the mysteries of paper money and credit. Thanks to the vagaries of Bourbon France, Will is arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille. His fortunes there fluctuate depending on the likelihood of Law’s return. He is befriended by a beautiful girl, the daughter of the Governor, and by a cat. Eventually, after seven years, he is released and made an officer of the French East India Company, despatched to Bengal.

There will be many adventures before he arrives there, for this is on the one hand a picaresque novel, on the other a pastiche of the rather tall Tales of travel in distant lands which were popular in the 18th century. There are storms and a shipwreck, years spent in French colonial outposts, service in India and wars in Persia. Will loves a great lady and is rejected by her, dabbles or more than dabbles in the jewel trade, leads a company of near brigands in battles and sieges, fights a duel, is taken prisoner by the army of the British East India Company, fights a duel and eventually returns to France just as, during the 1742-8 War of the Austrian Succession, Britain’s continental engagement offers an opportunity in 1745 to the Jacobites, so that Will finds himself in April of the next year on Drumrossie Moor where this first book of the story ends, to be, we are told, continued.

A Street Shaken by Light, by James Buchan

In one sense it is all rather breathless stuff, but Will’s narration is so light and dancing that, strangely, the novel also has an agreeably leisurely feel. It is rather as if Will was at his ease in the back-room of a tavern, offering an ignorant company reminiscences which strain, but never quite forbid, credulity. On his voyage east, for instance, Will finds himself required to deputise for the ship’s Chaplain who refuses to leave his cabin where he sips champagne and keeps watch over his cases of the wine. Probable? No. Acceptable and entertaining? Certainly. As with any club or bar-room raconteur, it’s all in the telling.

James Buchan, educated at Eton and Oxford, living in Norfolk, may be regarded as an Anglo-Scot, but this is a very Scottish novel, one more perhaps in the vein of Stevenson than his own grandfather, John. There’s a light-footed whimsicality about it with echoes of Stevenson’s New Arabian Knights but also recalling at moments the South Seas fiction. There is fine matter here, but it is the manner which is captivating. In the end, novels succeed not only by what they do, but, more importantly, by how they do it. The “what” is entertaining enough here, satisfactorily answering Scott’s question – “what is the plot for but to bring in fine things? – but it is the how that makes the book exceptional. A lesser novelist would have stretched out Will’s adventures over six or seven hundred pages. Buchan knows when to cut and dance away.

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A Street Shaken by Light, by James Buchan, Mountain Leopard, 271pp, £16.99