Book review: Republics of the Mind; James Robertson

Author James Robertson. Picture: Sean Bell
Author James Robertson. Picture: Sean Bell
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THERE are 22 stories in this collection. The first 11 were originally published in The Ragged Man’s Complaint in 1993. So we have 11 stories from the last 20 years.

Republics of the Mind

by James Robertson

Black & White Publishing, 282pp, £9.99

This suggests that James Robertson is not often attracted to the short form, is not perhaps a natural short-story writer like William Trevor or, here in Scotland, Brian McCabe, and that he prefers the space a novel offers.

His last novel And The Land Lay Still was a long, ambitious, rambling and impressive work; plenty of elbow room there, time and scope to explore the way individuals change over the years, influenced by the changing nature of society. It was a book in which he took a lot of risks. There were parts that didn’t come off, others which were outstandingly good.

The early stories are mostly slight. Some don’t come off at all. “Tilt”, for instance, is one which starts as if it is not going anywhere, and ends by arriving nowhere.

Others are rather flatly written, with passages like this: “Sometimes Dan gets out his magazines. The best bit about the magazines is after you buy them but before you start to read them”. Or this: “Although they don’t own a car Dan and Joan have a problem with car ownership. Many of the neighbours who have cars have had them fitted with alarms, and the alarms keep going off, usually at two in the morning. Dan hates them.”

The best of the early stories is the one which gives its title to the collection, with its argument that true freedom exists in the mind, rather than in the circumstances of your life. There are some very nice touches here, and a beautifully realised pub scene.

The stories in the second half are stronger, evidence of Robertson’s developing maturity and mastery of his craft. Two at least, “Old Mortality” and “Mactaggart’s Shed” are very good.

The first captures these significant moments when you may feel the strangeness of life. Alec and Liz are a young couple who are returning from a visit to his parents. They stop off at a graveyard where some of Alec’s ancestors are buried, though time, sea-winds and weathering have rendered only a few words still legible on the gravestones. Liz , who is newly pregnant, is ill-at-ease, even frightened by what she calls “the finality of it all”. They come on a vagrant lying “on top of one of the tablets within the enclosure”.

At first they think he may be dead, but he gets to his feet complaining because they have disturbed him. He tells them he looks after lots of graveyards, repairing the stones.

This is not the truth. The encounter is unsettling. When they get into the car to leave, Alex catches some of Liz’s alarm. He feels as if something is pursuing them. “The night had swallowed up the day and he felt as if it might swallow them”. The story is delicately done, with nothing stated but much implied; disturbing and nicely atmospheric.

In “MacTaggart’s Shed” Christie wakes in the armchair where he has spent the night. He looks out of the window and sees ghosts crossing the field where the shed of the title had been. (What happened to the shed will be revealed later, rather horribly.) “The sight of the ghosts should have filled him with horror, but he felt only a dull stirring of the old fear that had been with him for months.”

This is a splendid opening: you want to know about the ghosts – are they indeed ghosts? – and about the reason for his old fear. Then his brother-in-law Malky 
arrives with provisions. We don’t yet know why this is necessary and why Christie will no longer leave his cottage. He tells Malky that his sister, Malky’s wife, is “feart” as he himself is feart.

We want to know why, and why Malky pretends that there is no reason for fear. We suspect that something terrible has happened. The colour of the story is dark-grey, the sense of horror pervasive and compelling. When Robertson writes in this vein, he is disturbingly good.

In general these stories are dogged rather than dramatic, explorations of states of mind. Not much happens in many of them. The narrative interest is rarely strong. They are mood pieces, the kind of things a novelist may write in the intervals between novels or when, in the course of writing a long book, your imagination is weary and you pause to gather strength.

They are worth reading because Robertson is always worth reading, but only a handful are the real thing. Nice to have now, but partly to keep you interested while you wait for the next novel.