Robertson takes a serious subject on a surreal journey, writes Jane Bradley
To Be Continued... by James Robertson | Hamish Hamilton,, 336pp, £16.99
For a man who doesn’t appear to have worked as a professional journalist, James Robertson has a remarkable insight into the lives of those of us who still labour away at what we like to call the chalkface of truth. In fact, I’m actually starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, wondering if he’s been hiding under my desk for the past six months or so, conducting research for his latest book, To Be Continued...
Robertson’s main character, Douglas Findhorn Elder, is a sub-editor on a Scottish national paper, the Spear, who has recently been made redundant.
The newspaper – although of course bearing no resemblance to the esteemed publication you are currently reading – moved out of an historic Edinburgh city centre building, which has now become a hotel, to relocate to a “western suburb” of the city. He has clearly decided to leave out The Scotsman’s interim base on Holyrood Road for artistic purposes, but you get the idea.
Douglas is now scrabbling around for freelance work and after bumping into his former editor at a colleague’s funeral, is commissioned to conduct a series of interviews about the “Ideas of Scotland”. This is post-Indyref, we are told, although well before the Brexit vote, which “isn’t due for ages, if it ever happens”.
Douglas is sent to the depths of rural Scotland to interview a woman called Rosalind Munlochy, an esteemed, century-old Scot with a background in poetry and socialist politics. On his journey to this inaccessible part of the country, he erroneously gets out of a train at a request stop, mans a busy rural pub for an afternoon and ends up at a deserted hotel meeting a cast of characters with such intriguing names as Xanthe and Stuart Crathes MacCrimmon along the way.
In a twist which takes us from the sublime to the ridiculous, Douglas becomes friends with a talking toad. While in any other novel this would irritate as a completely unnecessary conceit, in this one it somehow works.
The toad, who decides to call himself Mungo due to difficulties with his real name (“You couldn’t pronounce it. Not a chance, even with your proficiency in Toad”), acts as Douglas’s conscience, asking him probing questions and forcing him to look inside himself in a way that no-one else has ever dared to do.
Throughout this series of bizarre events, he is hoping that a mysterious servant, Corryvreckan, will come and pick him up. It is like a scene from Waiting for Godot:
“Corryvreckan is well known in these parts... you will be in good hands, all being well.”
“All being well?”
“If he turns up.”
Yet it is not. There is an element of realism which stops To Be Continued... from slipping into surrealism, or worse, farce. “You’re not a character in a gothic melodrama, you know,” Coppelia Munlochy, the granddaughter of his interview subject, tells Douglas. And she is right.
The book is described by its publishers as a “madcap Highland adventure” yet Robertson, who was longlisted for the Booker Prize for his 2006 novel The Testament of Gideon Mack, manages to skilfully join the quirky with the serious; the surreal with the real. His take on contemporary Scotland is insightful, eccentric and highly readable. n
• James Robertson, Edinburgh International Book Festival, 25 August