In last year’s podcast with Alan Bissett he recommended two young writers who he thought had great futures ahead of them. The first was Allan Wilson, whose collection of short stories Wasted in Love was one of Scots Whay Hae’s books of the year. The other was Neil Butler whose debut The Roost was also published in 2011 and if I had got round to reading it sooner it would have joined Wasted in Love on that list. If you can’t be bothered reading this whole review, and I know your time is precious, then I’ll give you the short version here; The Roost is one of the most enjoyable, exciting and energising books I have read in some time, and as with Wilson I’m already excited to see what Neil Butler does next.
It is a collection of connected short stories with the same group of characters, in a similar manner to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Named after a tidal surge off the coast of Shetland, the stories are about a group of teenagers experimenting with sex, drink, drugs and fashion as they try to work out what is important in their lives. Butler beautifully captures what it’s like to be that uncertain age, coming to terms with all your hopes, fears and dreams while trying to work out what it means to ‘grow up’, without realising that so few of us ever do. Although this is a book about teenagers it is distinctly not a book only for teenagers. Imagine Skins written by Brett Easton Ellis and set on Shetland and you have some idea of what to expect, and if you think that sounds like a terrible thing then you’re wrong and I have failed you.
The central character is Ellie Tait, the popular, cool and attractive girl whose every whim and wish are pandered to by her ‘friends’ and admirers, often without them knowing why. The cruelty that Ellie hands out to friend and foe alike is breathtaking in its ferocity but Butler makes it clear that this comes from Ellie’s own insecurities and unhappiness. From the time we see her from afar playing football with the boys to the beyond poignant ending we, like Ellie, are made aware that she has this power to effect others without completely understanding why. This is teenage life as William Golding saw it, always in danger of losing any pretence of social expectations and returning to a state of nature. It is a visceral picture and you can almost smell the pheromones and Lynx.
Ellie appears to be top dog as she hides her personal demons more successfully than her peers, but is proved to be just as confused and vulnerable. She sees everything as a game, and as such everyone else as an opponent to be used before they use her. Everyone wants to be her or be near her and she abuses this power as she can’t quite believe that it’s true. If you don’t like yourself then it’s difficult to believe that any one else will. Her relationship with Stacey and Helena, who want nothing more than to be her friends, more through fear rather than affection, is heartbreaking for all three.
Written mainly in English with the odd piece of dialect to denote the older generation of Shetlanders, Butler captures how teenagers talk to each other, often using language that they think is ‘adult’, something which doesn’t sit easily in their mouths. The fierce desire to grow up as quickly as possible, and for some to leave as quickly as possible, is on every page. This is never more in evidence than in the battle of the sexes, a battle which these kids are spectacularly unprepared for. The language is sparse and simple which is perfect for the characters, particularly when they are expressing the casual cruelty that results from personal insecurities. These are not whip smart kids with all the answers, just constant questions. The main one being ‘who am I?’
As Kevin McNeil did with The Stornoway Way, Butler dispels any lingering belief that the Scottish Highlands and Islands are an untouched Tartan idyll from another time. This is as modern as Scottish storytelling gets. These lives are filled with worries which are exasperated by modern technology. The fear that a private photo will be passed around the playground, or trying to understand the hidden meaning behind the semiotics of texts, means that they are never able to be at ease, worrying that there is someone talking about them, or, even worse, not talking about them.
The Roost has been compared to Alan Warner’s The Sopranos, but I think Butler captures the language and interaction even more convincingly. The Sopranos in Warner’s book were all too cool for school, and I was more aware of the gender of the writer than I was when reading The Roost. There is none of the voyeurism that Warner sometimes reverts to in his novel, and there is an honesty and understanding on show here that is at the heart of Butler’s novel’s success. Despite some of the subject matter and actions of his characters there is always a warmth and genuine concern for these teenagers. Even if it’s been decades since you left the school gates for the last time The Roost will remind you that schooldays could be confusing and terrifying, despite what your memory may tell you.
The last twelve months in Scottish writing has warmed my soul as it has seen great novels from established writers such as A.L Kennedy, Alan Bissett, Ali Smith, Kevin MacNeil and John Burnside (who also won the T.S Eliot Prize for his collection of poetry Black Cat Bone). There were fascinating memoirs from Janice Galloway and Kapka Kassabova, a canonical collection of poetry with These Islands, We Sing, and new poetry from Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy as well as the appointment of Liz Lochhead as the nation’s Makar. When you add to all of this some of the fantastic new voices I have read or heard, of which the aforementioned Allan Wilson and Neil Butler are two of the best, then it seems clear to me that just as we are in interesting and influential times socially and politically so we are culturally, the one reflecting the other. As it should be. Feel free to disagree, but I would suggest that if you do then your not looking in the right places.