Doug Johnstone has a knack for writing relatively slender books in which he somehow seems to cover more ground than many other writers manage in twice the number of pages – witness 2016’s action-packed Crash Land, or the emotional power of 2012 McIlvanney Prize-listed The Jump.
Fault Lines is no exception, squeezing in murder, destruction and waves of emotion – plus an alternative version of Edinburgh where a volcanic island, the Inch, has emerged from a fault line in the Firth of Forth and where the inhabitants of Scotland’s capital city regularly feel the earth shudder beneath their feet.
But while the setting is fantastical, the characters are entirely relatable, and the plot is built so carefully that you can’t help but be swept along.
Born as the island was rising from the depths, Surtsey – named by her volcanologist mother for the Icelandic outcrop which appeared in the 1960s – is now a PhD student studying the black sand and basaltic glass cliffs of the Inch, while conducting an affair with her married tutor, Tom, via clandestine text messages and secret meetings.
As the novel opens, she arrives on the Inch for a rendezvous with Tom – only to find him lying dead on the rocks. In a fear-filled moment, she decides not to report his death, and quickly sails off, leaving his body to the gulls and crows.
Aftershocks literal and emotional abound as Surtsey navigates the fallout from her decision, while also trying to find out who is sending her mysterious texts about Tom – “I know you were there” reads the first. Later, an email arrives that creates a rift in Surtsey’s life as devastating as the fault line which threw up the Inch. And just as the reader can take no more, the book builds towards an explosive climax.
Where Crash Land crammed the pages with action, Fault Lines is filled with vivid characters, and in particular with complex women. Surtsey is at the centre of it all, with her sister Iona and flatmate Halima; then there’s the sisters’ mother, Louise, nursed in a care home by Donna, and Tom’s distraught widow, Alice. Each is carefully portrayed, Johnstone offering a masterclass in creating believable fictional women.
Surtsey is by turns vulnerable, chaotic and caring. She’s compelling but not always likeable, but as Johnstone said at a Newcastle Noir event earlier this month, what interests him is people with flaws who make bad decisions and then have to deal with the consequences. He always puts his characters through the wringer; here putting Surtsey under stress creates a diamond of a character.
Underlining some of the more emotional moments in the book with literal earthquakes is perhaps a little obvious, but Surtsey’s visceral connection with the island, the waters of the Firth of Forth, and the beach near her Portobello home makes these moments less incongruous than they might be otherwise.
On the whole, the geological fantasy of Fault Lines remains firmly in the background – it’s a novel and elegantly-used device, but it is the book’s thought-provoking and heartbreaking moments that carry the reader through the story, and which resonate most at the end.
Fault Lines, by Doug Johnstone, Orenda Books, £8.99