Book review: The Roost

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SMELLING like teen spirit and evoking all the spiky longing of the Undertones, Neil Butler’s The Roost heralds the arrival of an impressive and authentic new voice in Scottish literature.


Neil Butler

Thirsty Books, £7.99

Set in Butler’s native Shetland, these intertwined stories chart the lives of a cast of misfit teenagers, slouching towards adulthood from the end of primary school via a path strewn with broken hearts, the perils of the education system and friendships tried and tested.

Butler evokes admiration and loathing in equal measure for his company of players. Part selkie and all snake, Ellie Tait would knock the Mean Girls into a cocked hat, a constant menace to herself, to her handmaidens Helena and Stacey, and to all the males she encounters. Grant with “those teeth. Like a diseased shark” and his mind-altering unrequited love could give Kevin MacNeil’s R Stornoway a run for his money, while poor wee Simon, balancing on the difficult tweenage cusp, just wants to avoid having his head flushed down the bogs.

Annoying and petulant and bored, these are some of the most convincing teenagers in recent fiction, absorbed by mundane yet compelling concerns: from the jumpy stream of consciousness narratives, the volume, the bitter dramas expressed through italics, and the desperation to fit in, to the longing to escape the island.

It all feels a million miles away from the air-brushed, big-toothed Dawson’s Creek gang of more innocent times. And the beautiful thing is, they’re not all bad, because teenagers aren’t: a touching scene of reconciliation is played out via the chat boards of a computer game, warrior to warrior. A friend defends her friend. People grow up and sometimes things don’t go from bad to worse.

This is Skins in Shetland, meathead druggies, anxious parents and enough pilfered vodka to sink a ship.

Butler also manages to fuse the social (media) habits of today’s teens in their natural habitat with timelessly bizarre and unexplained happenings: their obsession with Facebook and mobiles and YouTube – “Hardly any of them even looked up at me, never mind greeted me – they just stared at their laptops, and every now and then one of them would laugh at something they were seeing.” – tempered by an old dog and his baffling new tricks.

The Roost is one of the most exciting, engrossing and satisfyingly odd confections I’ve encountered in ages. Reeking of testosterone, bravado, despair and hope, it’s one long night at the swings on White Lightning, with all the attendant highs and lows.