Novels are stories. They may be other things as well and good novels offer other delights. The story may be simple – “once upon a time” – or it may be rich in complication and deepened as a consequence of being addressed from different perspectives or by time-shifts. But the story is the skeleton. Without the story you have essays or mood pieces, often – sadly – no compelling reason to read further. The first thing to be said about Kirsty Wark’s second novel, The House by the Loch, is that it is a very good story. It holds you. You are eager to know how it will unfold.
Second, the characters in this story that spans three generations of a family – with a nod to generations further back – have been thoroughly imagined. You can care what happens to them. There are beautiful and talented women who drift into alcoholism, and there is the horror and sadness of living with someone you love who is becoming incapable of being what they promised to be. There is bleakness here, lightened by the author’s understanding and sympathy. You are likely to find yourself thinking, yes, this is how is must have been.
Third, Wark does scenery well. But the scenery is not there for decoration. It establishes the mood and atmosphere of the novel. The characters live in their setting, in houses by a lochside in Galloway, a loch which is beautiful, consoling and death-dealing. There is a terrible accident at the heart of the novel. You can see it coming; you hope it won’t arrive; and then you are engaged with the requirement that those most affected must nevertheless find a way to repair the damage. All this is presented in a manner that rings true, and falls short of sentimentality.
There is much to delight. Wark sets the scene pleasingly. There is warmth and understanding. At the same time there is a steely Presbyterian rigour to the story. Actions have consequences. People may be driven by what seems beyond their control. Nevertheless they are responsible for their lives and for the damage they do. Sometimes, Wark reminds us, damage may be the consequence of the best intentions. Sometimes love is not enough. Sometimes love is so protective that what should be open is a dark secret never to be discussed. Sometimes the strength to endure turns out to be a weakness.
A Presbyterian rigour, yes, but Wark also gives us a Scotland which in the decades after the 1939-45 war is moving – quite fast –away from the old social morality the Kirk taught. Even so, there are in the first generation we meet, things which must not be spoken of, and, a step further back in time, there is a family rift which has consequences that may be destructive. It’s a very Scottish novel, not only in setting but in its suggestion of the duality of human nature. Several times, with regard to different characters, it poses the question: am I another’s keeper?
It’s a novel of a very agreeable amplitude. It’s not merely that the story is rich and pleasing. It’s also that Wark has the ability to portray the uncertainties that lurk below what at first, and indeed for much of the novel, may appear to be the smoothest of surfaces. She doesn’t condemn her characters, is indeed sympathetic to their weaknesses, but nevertheless is unsparing in her willingness to show how they may harm those they love and those who depend on them.
There’s an old-fashioned feel to the novel – and I intend this as a compliment. It’s old-fashioned in its well-rounded characters, also in its sense of responsibility. It recalls the serious and very readable middlebrow novels that used to be the staple of Boot’s Lending Library, also perhaps a generation later Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet series.
One test of a novel is whether you almost immediately want to read it again. A second is whether you find still more in it at this second reading. I would guess that for many The House by the Loch will pass both tests, colours flying. - Allan Massie
The House by the Loch, by Kirsty Wark, Two Roads, 368pp, £16.99