To call Kirstin Innes’s Scabby Queen one of the most eagerly awaited novels of 2020 is a sizeable understatement. She had the not insignificant task of following up her ‘Not The Booker Prize’ winning novel Fishnet which introduced readers to a writer unafraid to tackle complex subjects, and do so with considerable style to match the substance. Scabby Queen doesn’t just build on the promise of Fishnet it surpasses it with consummate ease.
It’s a brave writer who kills their central character within the first few pages, but that’s what Innes does to Clio Campbell. Campbell is an early-’90’s one-hit wonder whose music, despite the lack of sustained success, inspired and affected a significant number of people, many of whom would go on to be involved with social and political movements and events.
But Clio clearly made an even bigger impact in person – once met never forgotten. The chapters of the novel consist of a series of reminiscences from people who came into contact with her over the years, all of whom were left changed in one way or another. They may have loved her, or loathed her (or both at times) but they could never ignore her as she flits in and out of their lives and consciousness – her presence seemingly never far from their thoughts.
It’s a complex portrayal of a complicated individual, which makes it all the more human and relatable. Clio, and all of Innes’ incredible cast of characters, make mistakes and mess-up, even when, and sometimes because, they are trying to do the right thing. It’s such a clever way to tell a story, or at least this story. The picture that emerges of Clio comes from multiple perspectives, sometimes contradictory, offering a more vivid impression of a character than would normally be the case. Consequentially, each chapter says as much or more about the relevant individual and as it does about Clio herself.
Similarly we also get to see changes in, and attitudes to, what is happening nationally, both in Scotland and the UK. Innes uses her characters to reflect on a variety of subjects, including the often underhand machinations of the media, the cult of fame, miscarriages of justice, institutional prejudice, political campaigns both national and global, and a number of cultural shifts in attitudes and behaviour.
However, in many aspects no matter how things may change too much stays the same, particularly the treatment of, and the struggles faced by, women across society. Scabby Queen appears a prescient novel which has arrived at the perfect moment but it also feels somehow timeless, its concerns being clearly contemporary yet often all too familiar, with lessons learned and others forgotten.
Set over the last 50 years Scabby Queen is an epic novel which wears its ambition lightly, and that’s because it remains relatable throughout. It’s historical, only the history is recent enough to still be fresh in many people’s minds. There are key events which underpin the narrative, from the Poll Tax protest marches to the Scottish Independence Referendum, but it is ultimately all about individuals, as all stories are, and Innes seems to understand that better than most. While it touches on politics and prejudice, it’s also about growing up and growing old, and not letting time pass you by. The fire that burned in Clio Campbell is one which Kirstin Innes clearly shares as the novel fizzes with ideas and no little indignation.
To unravel a life in this way is fascinating – like a mystery being solved one piece of evidence at a time and, in time-honoured fashion, there are plenty of twists and turns along the way. What is clear is that while Clio Campbell may only have been part of the lives of others for intermittent periods, the effect is ultimately life-affirming as she offers hope and inspiration to those left behind.
Kirstin Innes has written a novel which is engaged, engaging and empathetic – one which will make you reflect on your own history and those you share it with; how you treat others and how you treat yourself, and you might not always enjoy what you find. But that’s sort of the point. Scabby Queen is searingly honest about what it means to be human, warts and all, and it demands readers be the same. If you’re like me you won’t finish the book the same person you were when you began.
You can read Ali’s interview with Kirstin Innes for SNACK magazine.
Posted in: Books