When Scots Whay Hae! reviewed James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still it was noted that Scotland hadn’t produced enough epic literature over the last 100 years. While the hangover from an overdose of Walter Scott in previous centuries may have had something to do with it, there is no doubt that in recent, and not so recent, times Scottish writers have tended to deal with the individual and the local, usually over a short period of time, rather than look at the bigger picture.
With his recent novel, A Book Of Death And Fish, Ian Stephen has managed to combine these two approaches to produce an epic tale which looks at an ever-changing Scotland from an individual’s point of view. The story which unfolds is that of Peter MacAulay as he settles down to write his will and testament, and finds himself looking back on people and places he has known and how they have influenced his life.
The title is an arresting one, and not as disingenuous as you may believe, or as unambitious as you may fear, as although there have been plenty of both fish and death in Peter’s life, there’s a lot more to consider. His has been one rich in experience, (either his own, or that of others), and the at times immodest telling suggests a man certain of his pla(i)ce, (ahem!). What you get is a depiction of a changing Scotland, and particularly the highlands and islands, as Peter’s story unfolds, and much of the novel’s success is in the telling; specifically the writer’s use of language and his wonderfully precise way with detail.
As I read A Book Of Death And Fish the writer I was most put in mind of was John Irving, especially his The World According To Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany, in that the world is defined on the page through the eyes of an apparently unremarkable man and the coterie of characters he meets over the years. As such, subjects such as childhood, family, education, culture, sex, politics, family again, and more are touched upon.
It is an incredibly sensual book, not only in terms of sights and sounds, but also vivid tastes and smells, particularly with reference to food. Fashions come and go, and this applies as much to fish as it does to other aspects of life. There is a tremendous, and absolutely practical, recipe for a fish soup which I would recommend to anyone, ending with the advice, “don’t leave any of the soup or you might get bad weather tomorrow”. The shifting cultural significance of herring, lobster, mussels, razor clams, John Dory, and so on are as good an indicator of changing times as the more normal cultural barometers such as art, politics or commerce, but Stephen’s use of those is unerring as well.
Music mentioned includes, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Fleetwood Mac, Tom Waits and, yes, Country Joe and the Fish; writers who get a mention include James Kelman, Raymond Carver, Colm Toibin and Haruki Murakami. Even modes of transport are a mix of the normal and the curious, ranging from the Morris Minor Traveller to Massey Ferguson tractors. Places visited or which get name-checked include Arbroath, Eyemouth, Glasgow, Kyle of Lochalsh, Stonehaven and many more. All of this may just seem like extra information, but it is how Stephen uses his references that is so impressive. Such detail is not for effect as you find with certain writers; it has to read true when applied to Peter’s life, and you believe the context in which he discovers all of the above.
There is a geographically thorough representation of Scotland as well as a historic and cultural one as we are taken from Shetland to the Solway Firth, West Coast to East Coast, and all around the coast as well. The land and the sea; the one constantly affecting the other, and this relationship comes to define Peter’s life and explains his almost religious twin obsessions of death and fish; his two certainties in an ever-changing world. There is, perhaps, a surreal sensibility at work here, or maybe it is simply a playful sense of humour, but a sentence such as “Like a lot of people on this planet I owe my existence to herring” lends the tale an uncanny strangeness that again has echoes of Irving’s best work.
What is also to the fore is the importance of storytelling and communication, and how the forms of both change throughout the years. There are letters, typed family stories, poems, emails, an extract from Peter’s PhD thesis, as well as the details of the will and testament. These asides are central to the book as they bring in other voices and points of view. Peter’s language, which is a mix of Scots, English and some Gaelic, can take a while to become accustomed to, and although it is easy to warm to once you have, these interruptions are welcome in that they break up the story and make for a more interesting read.
Before I finish, mention also has to be made of publishers, Saraband, who should be applauded for publishing a book of this scope. I can imagine that many other prospective publishers would have asked for a lesser word count which, I imagine, may have led to losing some of the correspondence mentioned above, and so much would have been lost by such swingeing cuts. Instead, they have made the size a feature, and produced a beautiful looking book in the process. This is an epic novel in more ways than one, but then this is the story of a man from cradle to grave and as such it deserves due consideration. Some people may be put off by the scale, but the writing is concise, accessible and memorable. Give it your time and you will not regret it for one moment. You may well think back on your own life in a different manner as a result.