There are few more difficult aspects for an adult writer to get right than the voice of a child. Often they are given speech patterns which are older in tone and content than the intended age. In recent years, however, Scottish writing has had quite a few examples where a young central character’s voice, accents and actions have been utterly believable. They include Ross Sayer’s Mary’s The Name, Helen MacKinven’s Talk Of The Toun and P.K. Lynch’s Armadillos, and to those you can add Daniel Shand’s latest novel Crocodile, published by Sandstone Press.
It’s the story of Chloe who has come to stay with her grandparents very much against her will. It unfolds that this is an arrangement between Angie, (the girl’s mother), and her elderly and estranged parents. It’s an uneasy alliance which means that although the latter get to spend time with their granddaughter, and Angie gets the break from the responsibilities and burden of being a parent which she feels she needs, they all realise that this is far from an ideal situation. As a result Chloe’s wishes are of little consequence and she has to find ways to cope. She literally dreams of life back with her mother, remembering a version of events which she may be viewing through rose-tinted spectacles married to a lack of understanding of the adult world that comes with youth. What remains of her naiveté is all too soon lost.
After initial resistance Chloe begins to make a life in her new surroundings, finding some comfort in the well-meaning kindness of her grandparents and their neighbours, and making friends with Ally, Chris, and Darryl – a local gang of fellow outsiders who would not be out-of-place in a Stephen King novel. After initial mutual suspicion and even resentment, the four build dens, climb trees, get drunk, and become as thick as thieves. It’s a familiar and beautifully told tale which will have you reminiscing on your own childhood – the good, bad, and ugly. Just when things are settling down for Chloe (or “the girl” as she is known for most of the book) events conspire against her, both deliberate and accidental, which brings disruption and turmoil to her life once more.
Without giving away spoilers, it is the reappearance of her mother in Chloe’s life which throws everything in the air. As we get to know more about Angie it becomes clear that she is the immature one in this family – displaying selfishness, jealousy, insecurity and anger, often in a single sentence. It is strongly hinted that there is something in her own childhood, an event from her past, which could be at the root of this self-destructive behaviour which, in turn, is having such a detrimental effect on her daughter. And so it goes – familial secrets and lies raise their ugly heads as events progress, and everyone has to reflect on their actions, and inaction, to try to work out how they can move on, if that’s possible.
Daniel Shand’s debut, Fallow, won the Betty Trask Prize garnering acclaim from the likes of Alan Warner, Allan Massie, Joanne Harris and Rodge Glass. It’s often difficult to follow such success but he has done so by writing a coming-of-age novel which doesn’t pull its punches, beautifully setting out an individual childhood which will resonate with readers. Where Shand really shines is in the construction of his dramatis personae. He uses an economy of language to get to the heart of what makes his characters tick – a look, a touch, a stray thought, a wordless tantrum. By examining all too familiar failings, and the tricks the mind often plays to justify and even forgive them, he gives insight into the human psyche which does not always make for an easy read, but which is never less than a compelling one. With Crocodile Daniel Shand has cemented his position as one of Scotland’s finest and original literary voices.