Writing the voice of a child or a young person is one of the most difficult things for an adult writer to get right. If you don’t then your fiction will fail before it’s even begun. Novels which have pulled it off successfully include James Kelman’s Kieron Smith, boy, Anne Donovan’s Buddha Da, Alan Bissett’s The Incredible Adam Spark, Des Dillon’s Me & Ma Gal, and Helen MacKinven’s Talk Of The Toun.
To those we can add Ross Sayers’ debut Mary’s The Name. Mary is an orphan who lives with Granpa, two people whose lives are going along with the usual trials and tribulations until an unfortunate event occurs which will change both of them forever. Granpa works in the local bookies and both he and Mary are under threat when the shop is help up by “robbers with hammers”, as Mary describes them.
It’s an arresting and memorable opening, and Sayers gets Mary’s voice and point of view straight away. She sees life through the prism of her grandpa’s influence and that colours what she believes, and what she sees – and what she believes she sees. While Granpa hatches plans which will have a lasting effect on Mary’s life she starts out as unquestionably trusting of her hero, but as they travel and interact with the wider world she starts to see that he is as flawed and human as the other adults she meets.
Mary’s relationships with adults, and with other children, are telling and ring true. There are instant likes and dislikes of the former, often to be doubted and overturned at a later date. Childhood friendships are cemented quickly, and are of huge import to Mary, especially as she tries to make sense of new surroundings and the realisation that the things she believed to be certainties are no longer so.
Ross Sayers takes you back to your own childhood and makes you think about that stage in your life when time moved at a pace when a week-long holiday friendship could be a defining one. This isn’t a book dealing in nostalgia, but rather one which celebrates childhood, a time which can be too often overlooked and dismissed. Mary’s story is the most important in this novel. She is determined to be both seen and heard.
I must make it clear that this is a novel which contains imminent threat, danger and action, most directly to Mary and those she meets, and much of that action takes place on the Isle of Skye. Mary’s The Name is the latest in recent novels to use the Scottish islands as their setting. From Robin Jenkins’ The Changeling, through Kevin MacNeil’s seminal The Stornoway Way, to Louise Welsh’s Naming The Bones, Doug Johnstone’s Smokeheads, Robert Alan Jamieson’s Da Happie Laand and Amy Sackville’s Orkney, the islands have become a reassuringly familiar setting in Scottish writing, but one which retains enough difference from the more prevalent urban settings to make them unfamiliar for the majority of characters and readers alike.
Mary’s The Name marks Ross Sayers as a writer to take note of. In it he manages to pull off the difficult trick of making you laugh on one page, cry on the next. He does this by relating honestly the relationship between a child and their grandparent without it being mawkish or sentimental. He also manages to convey the world through a child’s eyes, highlighting the things that she believes are important, and which are important to Mary, but which adults often dismiss. You’ll care about Mary, even after the last page, wishing the best for her. You’ll also remember a time in your own life where what you now see as complicated was trivial, and what you perhaps now consider unimportant was very important indeed. Once you’ve met Mary you won’t forget her in a hurry.
Mary’s The Name is published by Cranachan Publishing.
Here is the audio version of this review: