Writing about real life in fiction is fraught with danger, but when the background to your book is a notorious disaster then an author not only has to be sure of themselves and how they are going to approach it, they must do so with conviction. Research and point of view is vital if you are not to be accused of disrespect or worse, and even then you have to be prepared for unfounded opprobrium such as James Robertson had with the reaction from some to his writing the 2013 novel The Professor of Truth. Not to the book itself, but simply the writing of it.
Iain Maloney risks similar strong reaction to his latest novel The Waves Burn Bright which has 1988’s Piper Alpha North Sea oil platform disaster as its major event. Maloney is obviously well aware of the duty of care he has to all involved and this shows in his writing which is never sensationalist, and which clearly has the backing of rigorous research. This approach stands him in good stead as Maloney takes on more than one controversial and emotive subject.
One of his central characters, Marcus Fraser, suffers survivor’s guilt and PTSD as a result of his involvement on Piper Alpha, and his alcoholism could be seen as a form of self-medication; but it’s not as simple as that. It’s never as simple as that. Problem drinking, while common in Scottish writing, has rarely been dealt with in such an evenhanded and non-reactionary manner. In fact, the way he deals with all of these topics speaks of a writer who can not only understand and empathise with others, but who can make his readers do likewise.
Having read previous work by Maloney I would suggest that where The Waves Burn Bright really sees a step forward in his writing is in terms of people and place. His depiction of Aberdeen in particular will ring true with anyone who has knowledge of the city. Details of pubs, cafes and back streets are written with the confidence of someone who knows them like the back of his hand, and Maloney also manages to convey that city’s individuality, something which has been affected by the discovery of oil in general, and Piper Alpha specifically. However, Korea, Japan and Hawaii are portrayed with equal credibility as Maloney’s other central character, Marcus’s daughter Carrie, traverses the globe to try and discover who she is and to avoid discovering who her father has become.
The secondary characters make less of an impact, although I have a particular fondness for Hannah, Carrie’s mother whose lack of sympathy and empathy for a hurt child will chime strongly with anyone brought up in a family with a medical practitioner. However, the dominance of Marcus and Carrie is understandable. It’s rare to have one memorable character in a novel, but with the disparate double act of this estranged father and daughter Maloney has created two, each as flawed and single-minded as the other. You don’t just want to know what happens to them, you care.
With The Waves Burn Bright Iain Maloney has written his best book to date, not only an entertaining and thoughtful one, but, I would suggest, an important one. Many of us will never forget the night of Piper Alpha, but there will be those who are unaware of it. This is an important part of Scotland’s history and Maloney has not only paid respect to the memory of that terrible event, he has offered fresh insight into how individuals and their families and friends cope, or more often fail to cope, with trauma – the humanity behind the headlines.
Here is the audio version of this review:
Iain Maloney was a guest on the Scots Whay Hae! podcast earlier this year.