The first novel by Ever Dundas is, in my opinion, the best debut fiction by a Scottish author since Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon in 2012. It shares certain similarities with that work in that although both might lazily be referred to as magic realism, or sinister surrealism, they can both be read as elegiacally real books in which the fantastical moments are psychological swerves from the utter trauma of reality. Dundas has created a profoundly affecting, intellectually challenging and beautifully written fable which might not be a fable at all.
The titular protagonist, Goblin, was given the name by a termagant mother; one of several mothers Goblin will have across the book, which spans the past and present centuries, and much of which concerns the Second World War. But it begins in the present, with an elderly person going under the name of Ms G Bradfield in Edinburgh’s Central Library trying to help a rough-sleeper who is coming in and literally eating a copy of Joyce’s Ulysses, page by page. It’s a wry and sly reference: how do you make things new after a book as profound as Ulysses? A strange set of photographs have been unearthed in London, some depicting an even stranger totem: a hybrid creature of shrew’s head, crow’s feet, worm’s arms and teddy bear’s body. Soon the police want to speak to Ms Bradfield about these ghastly artefacts, and what else has been developed from the buried camera.
It should be said at the outset that this is one of the kindest depictions of a homeless person: not as societal detritus but as potential protagonist of their own life.
The narrative shuttlecocks between the present and the outbreak of the Second World War. Goblin’s brother is a conscientious objector who takes Goblin to the cinema to see B-movies about Frankenstein. There are larks in the derelicts, as Goblin goes about with a pet dog, nicknamed Devil, before creating a hybrid-thing called “Monsta” after witnessing something that cannot be remembered. What follows is evacuation to a nastily Christian household farm in Cornwall; a genuine moment of love; a return to London and an Oliver Twist-style interlude; and eventually a career in the circus. This is neither Tod Browning’s 1932 film Freaks nor the candy-floss mimsy of Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. More than any recent novel, Goblin seems to take on the true challenge of Angela Carter: the circus as space of transformation and metamorphosis, the home for the homeless and yet still a space which is unheimlich, unhomely, or eerie.
Throughout Goblin’s life there are animals. We begin with Devil, but later on meet Corporal Pig, Captain Flint (a raven), Groo (a cat), Billy Bones (a chicken) and very many more. In the future there will be dogs called Mahler and Sam. There is a very serious intent behind what is often very funny writing – the pilgrimage of Goblin and a pig from Cornwall to London is especially well done.
War is, as we are often told, a place where humanity becomes bestial. In Goblin, animals are the better angels of our nature, the innocent, the sacrificed, the shunned, the broken and the kind. It seems as if Dundas has read Peter Singer’s influential works on “animal rights”, his Hegelian influenced thinking about how we should treat other species. Goblin – a person put down and berated and, in one horrific scene, tortured – can intuit that the animal is sometimes more human than humans.
A parallel narrative develops as Ms G Bradfield, who is strangely tattooed, eventually goes to London as part of the investigation, and this coincides with the Riots of 2011. (I doubt many readers will take too long to realise the connection between Ms G Bradfield and Goblin). The Riots and the Blitz become occult doubles, in that the “Blitz Spirit” – so admirably unpicked by the late Angus Calder – was not so much “pulling together” as “steal what you can”. Simmering under the narrative is a question: what would a revolution look like? Goblin’s later life will take in many countries undergoing massive change.
At the novel’s core is a splicing regarding the whole issue of gender. As alert readers will have noticed, I haven’t used the words “him” or “her” in this review. Goblin is, in a way, despite having had several sexual experiences through the book, beyond even bisexual. The relationship with the Disney-esque animal friends and the strange mythology Goblin develops about Pigeon Women and Lizard Kings is actually about love being more important than sexuality. The Lizards myth is intricately wrapped into the overall narrative in a manner which is both exploitative and kindly, radical and expedient, funny ha-ha and funny-odd.
There is so much to admire in this book: the clever intertextual allusions to The War Of The Worlds, the picaresque divagations, the moral outrage, the neatness of the characterisation. It is a marvellous piece of work, and if it doesn’t win Saltire First Book of the Year, I might just walk naked down Princes Street.
*Goblin, by Ever Dundas, Freight Books, £9.99