There are few things in this life I look forward to more than the latest Ron Butlin novel. His 1987 novel, The Sound Of My Voice, is one of those books which I bang on to strangers about, as I have mentioned before. A former makar of Edinburgh, there are few Scottish writers around who manage to master both poetry and prose as he has, and I do wonder if this versatility has led to his fiction not being as well known as it should be. Make no mistake, Ron Butlin is one of Scotland’s finest novelists.
His latest, Ghost Moon, is yet further evidence of this. It opens in the present day with Tom travelling the B-roads of central Scotland to make his weekly visit to his elderly mother Maggie in her care-home; an increasingly upsetting experience for both as she struggles to remember who he is, and he doesn’t know how to react to her worsening condition. As an opening chapter it is one which is as moving and upsetting as you are likely to read, but it sets the tone for what is an incredible, yet utterly realistic, tale of someone who wouldn’t see herself as anything other than ordinary, yet who proves to have a desire and will which is extraordinary.
Later, as Maggie lies in her bed in the home, the ghost moon in the sky reminds her of another time and place which is then recounted, and if you think the present is bleak, the past is to prove equally challenging, but what it also offers is hope, even in the darkest of days. As is often the case, the memories that are most clear for Maggie are those from decades ago, and what unfolds is a heartbreaking and inspiring story of a young woman’s struggle to have a life, and keep her son, the one she now can no longer place. As Butlin writes, “Close your eyes – Something wonderful is about to happen. Listen – ”
The novel is concerned with Maggie’s survival in the face of what is seen as apportioned shame and blame, and the social conventions which attribute both, often in the cruelest fashion. Maggie has to escape her Edinburgh home after being shunned by her own parents for falling pregnant as a result of a night spent with a man who promised her the world, and then discarded her with out a backward glance. She flees to Stornoway where she accepts the kind offer of food and shelter from Mrs Stewart and her blind son, Michael, with whom she falls in love. This brief glimpse of hope and happiness is soon whisked away from Maggie when the true circumstances of her predicament are made known and Maggie returns to Edinburgh once more, unwanted by her parents, pregnant, homeless and jobless too.
She is helped along the way, but this is really one women’s struggle to succeed despite all that life and society puts in her way. Her stubbornness is borne out of desperation, and abandonment by those who are supposed to look after her, but who would rather she just disappear. Such attitudes are a result of the misplaced sense of morality that puts ‘standards’ and social expectations ahead of individual needs and well being, something which is sadly not confined to the past.
Heroism is often too obvious and glib in fiction, but Maggie’s is indefatigable. Some may argue that her actions are selfish, but those people must be cynical in the extreme. Everything she does is for her son or for Michael, and although she believes that it is with them that her chance for happiness lies, that is secondary to their well being. Butlin’s triumph is to make the reader desperate to know what happens next, and how Maggie deals with everything put in front of her. This is thrilling writing about a subject which some may feel would be weighed down in sentiment and nostalgia, but Butlin keeps the pace by refusing to allow Maggie to stand still when others would simply give up. She is an unforgettable creation from a writer who once again proves that he is one of the best around, and Ghost Moon is a timely reminder of this.