Years ago the first novel of Andreï Makine’s which I reviewed here was Confessions of a Lapsed Standard-Bearer. Its evocation of the Soviet Union in the late 1950s rang with such compelling authenticity that I was sure it must be autobiographical, drawn from memory. Then I looked at the author’s note in the inside back cover and saw that Makine was born in 1959.
If I didn’t know that Donald S Murray is much younger than I am, I would likewise have thought this moving evocation of a childhood in the 1930s on the Island of Lewis an exercise in autobiographical memory. Lewis was then still oppressed by the memory of the 1914-18 war, the island’s terrible loss of life culminating in January 1919 in the sinking of the SS Iolaire in the approach to Stornoway Harbour, when 200 men who had survived the horrors of the conflict were drowned. It rings so true, so movingly and pityingly true, that even knowing it could not be I was repeatedly persuaded that it was. Only the dates given in each chapter heading showed that it could not be.
The novel begins in Glasgow. The narrator’s mother has died, leaving him and his little sister to the incompetent care of his well-meaning but fushionless, drunken and tarry-handed Aberdonian father. Unable to care for the children, he sends them to his maternal grandfather on Lewis.The grandfather, Tormor, and his second wife accept the responsibility, helped by Tormor’s remarkable semi-paralysed brother. Tormor, a veteran of the war and an accomplished draughtsman, is a natural teacher, and the narrator will come to think of himself as fortunate. The evocation of his upbringing and of the war-damaged island community is beautifully done.
The novel is only in part the story of the narrator’s boyhood and moral education, though that part is exquisitely realised; it is a classic bildungsroman in a Scottish, more exactly perhaps in a Highlands and Islands tradition, with echoes of the novels of Neil Gunn and Iain Crichton Smith and the short stories of George Mackay Brown. It is testimony to the purity of Murray’s vision and the quality of his prose that such comparisons not only come to mind but seem utterly justified.
But it is also the story of Lewis and that terrible war, conveyed partly in broken conversation that draws unwillingly on memories, partly by the narrator’s reading, years later, of Tormod’s journals. Which brings one to the Iolaire disaster, vividly recounted, a disaster which led – one might say compelled – Tormod to think “about the men who crammed aboard the Iolaire for much of the rest of his life. He even drew pictures of their faces to keep them in his mind using the sheet of paper which acted as a marker in the Bible he read each night and morning”. His wife disapproved of this: “It’s akin to blasphemy, all this pondering on the dead.” Tormod shakes his head. “It’s better than forgetting them.”
What, for all the pain, is in retrospect an idyllic childhood comes to an end when the children’s father re-establishes himself, as he thinks, in Aberdeen and calls for them to be returned. “We never saw them again” – sad words. But the narrator remembers these days for the best of reasons, that “they provided me with a sense of decency,” and now, writing ostensibly in 1992, he is reminded of his grandfather “every time I see so many wonders in my life, such as the lapwings he told me I had to notice. He had had the fortune to have been given “a pure, unbending example of how a man should live.”
This is a remarkable first novel and one that has been a long time in the making, set aside or the work interrupted while Murray wrote his admirable and successful books about the herring fisheries and moorlands. It is that rarity: a work of the imagination which reads like experienced truth. It’s the kind of book you want to read again as soon as you finish it, because you know there is so much that will be revealed on that second reading; the kind of novel which can enrich your life.
As the Women Lay Dreaming, by Donald S Murray, Saraband, 221pp, £8.99