Sunday, 7 December 2008

The Fanatic, by James Robertson

An old book review, which I'm reporoducing here before MSN communities are switchedoff in February. This dates from 2001:

I've just finished reading The Fanatic by James Robertson. It is an interesting novel, with two different plots running through it. One of them is set in Edinburgh in 1997, and tells the story of Andrew Carlin, who works as a spook on an Edinburgh ghost walk. The second narrative deals with James Mitchell, a 17th century religious fanatic who attempts to murder the archbishop of St Andrews, and is imprisoned, tortured and finally hung as a result.

What attracted me to this book is that it deals with a period of Scottish history that I know very little about, much to my shame. The only time I can remember meeting the Covenanters in literature before is in Sir Walter Scott's Old Mortality, which I read in my sixth year at school. Robertson slyly drops his name into The Fanatic a couple of times, which is a nice touch. Though a sceptic, when it comes to entertainment I don't mind unexplained forces and supernatural powers. I ahve a peculiar fondness for books with a supernatural element like this, where curious, never fully explained forces influence people centuries later - Peter Ackroyd has made an entire career out of books like this. Robertson isn't half the writer that Ackroyd is, but he does bother to include a plot, which helps.

The main weakness of the book is that the 17th century narrative is so much more interesting that the modern day sections. Carlin is an interesting character, and his profound oddness is well portrayed, but it can't match the bloodthirsty narrative that it is paired with. The 17th century has slaughter, torture, bestiality, incest, witchcraft... The 20th century parts have a lonely loon talking to his mirror. I almost felt Robertson would have been happier writing a straight historical novel, but included the 20th century parts for his own inscrutable reasons - to avoid being consigned to the "Historical Fiction" ghetto, perhaps? Or is it the old Mrztist maxim that history is bound to repeat itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce? Or demonstrating that that we're all just quivering neurotic wrecks, regardless of what century we live in?

There is also an annoying parochialism about it, something I've noticed in Scottish literature. I remember it annoying me when Iain Rankin went on about Irn Bru in his Rebus novels, or waffled on about the character of malt whiskies. We dinnae need to explain everything, and if we try it disrupts the story. For example:

"He raised his glass, souked an inch or more out of it. 'Slainte.' It was only recently that he'd learnt that this was gaelic for 'Health'. For years he'd said 'Slange' thinking it was an obscure Scots term signifying 'Slam your drink down your throat and let's get another in'. It was watching Machair, the gaelic soap opera, that had enlightened him."
The idea of modern urbanite Scots gaining their cultural knowledge from soap opera is amusing, but do we really need to know exactly which soap? It is the sort of precision that dates very quickly. (For all those who don't know, Machair was a real soap, set on a wee island. It was a bit like Eldorado, only colder. It went the same way as Eldorado did).

Sometimes, alas, Robertson slips up - would a country lad in 17th century Scotland really have referred to himslef or his ilk as a "Proletarian"? Dinnae think so. In the 17th century sections he struggles to convey the atmosphere of the time - really make you feel it, the way Ackroyd does. He decides to stage the big trial scene at the end as if it was on Boston Legal - I don't imagine 17th Scots law had quite the same feel to it.

These are the the things I don't like about the book. What dio I like? It is still a good story, despite the reservations. It might have been a better story if he hadn't tried to find a 20th century corrolation. Despite the old slip up, he's not at all a bad writer. He could do with using a few more unusual adjectives and similies, but he's far from alone in this. It does generate a fair degree of excitement - it only take a couple of days to read. And am I being too cynical when I wonder why it is that Robertson climaxes the 17th century strand with the trial of Mitchell, where the Scottish legal system is shown to be a tool of the ruling class, and the 20th century strand with the triumph of New Labour in 1997? I dinnae ken, but the thought made me smile.

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