Anyone who has the slightest interest in Scottish literature will have had that question posed to them at some point, “What is Scottish literature anyway?” (for some reason, there’s always an “anyway”). The argument goes, and has done for some time, that it is simply another branch of English literature and should be treated as such. I have all my answers to this down pat, so much so that I bore myself with them, and no doubt many of you regular readers, so I won’t repeat them here. However, a very neat solution has arrived. From now on I can simply hand them a copy of Karen Campbell’s latest novel, Rise, and say, “Read this”.
Following on from 2013’s memorable This Is Where I Am, this time round Campbell embraces the history and legacy of Scottish writing, influenced by the ancient and the contemporary, a very Scottish literary trope in itself. There are themes here which will be familiar to those who have even the most basic knowledge of Scotland’s literature. The supernatural versus the psychological, the urban versus the rural, the enduring pull of the land, the present day and the past, family secrets, the cuckoo in the nest, fatally flawed central characters, betrayal, duelling polarities, even some standing stones; all of these are brought together with a deceptively light touch.
While it is obviously written by someone in love with reading as much as with writing, Rise is no box ticking exercise in literary themes. Campbell is a storyteller, and the story and her characters are always to the fore, as is a keen sense of place. It is also a novel which is bang up to date as it deals with recent Scottish politics as well other current Scottish social and cultural concerns, something too few writers have addressed. The name of the novel, and it’s tagline, ‘You can’t outrun your shadow…’ hints at a hope for the future while never forgetting the past. It takes the lives of individuals and makes it about so much more than their concerns, and in that sense it is a rich novel; one to take time with and uncover the layers which are waiting to be discovered.
The opening page sets the tone as it is beautifully, almost poetically, written. To quote just a little bit,
“The sandstone tenements glare, crushing her, towering, toppling, full of lives and noise, and she doesn’t want any part of this. They staunch air; it flows sickly though mankey alleys. […] She wants to stand on the highest hill and scatter herself, throw herself hard and trust to luck she lands somewhere soft.”
This sets up what is to unfold. Flight from a sick city, the promise of a new beginning, the search for a ‘Scotland’ that may or may not exist. Justine is the individual escaping, and for her anywhere will do, as long as it isn’t there. She’s not looking for somewhere to live; she’s looking for somewhere to hide. The place she finds, the rural village of Kilmacarra, is already housing fellow escapees who have arrived trying to make a new start, but failing to shake off the baggage they brought with them. Justine’s arrival has ramifications for many of Kilmacarra’s residents and threatens to tear the apparently close knit community apart.
Campbell is a writer who always manages to wrong foot you, seemingly for fun, and the results are never less than thrilling. She builds tension, often unbearably, as lies are threatened to be uncovered, and, even worse, so is the truth. There is a sense of foreboding and impending doom which is worthy of a John Carpenter movie as Justine tries to remain incognito. Her desire to be someone even she doesn’t recognise is repeated throughout the book in other characters’ lives, and Campbell obviously understands what makes people tick; the good and the bad. All of her characters are fully-developed and all-too believable, and this makes you take closer notice than you may have done otherwise when she holds up a mirror to you and asks, “What would you do?” as the various dilemmas unfold. You can not be a passive reader of a Karen Campbell novel. She refuses to let you.
If you like a frame of reference, Rise is reminiscent of the work of James Robertson, John Burnside and Ali Smith, and like those three Campbell seems to have reached a stage where she is absolutely secure in her own voice and style. I said that Rise reflects the influence of the best of Scottish writing, but these are themes which can be found in most areas of Scottish art. The quotation above could have been downbeat lyrics from an early Blue Nile album, or the description of an Oscar Marzaroli photograph. Glaswegian, Charlie Boy, could have been painted by Ken Currie, or Joan Eardley when Charlie was a young, yet to be corrupted, boy. And if there’s not quite a “Brigadoon” feel about Kilmacarra, there’s more than a hint of Sunset Song’s Kinraddie or John Galt’s Dalmailing, a place which is outwardly idyllic while keeping its own secrets, some better hidden than others. Rise is steeped in Scottish culture, but makes no big deal about it, just as it should be. Primarily it is a novel which is thought provoking and involving, and never less than thoroughly entertaining. Spread the word; Karen Campbell has quietly become one of Scotland’s very best writers, and deserves to be considered as such. Consider it done.
If you’d rather listen than read, here’s the audio version of the review…
Back in June of 2013, Karen Campbell joined us on the podcast, and you can still hear that chat if you go here.