Book review: In a city of light

The Angle of Incidence by Alex Benzie Viking, pounds 16.99, 406pp
Click to follow
ALEX BENZIE'S debut, The Year's Midnight, was encouragingly received. That historical novel earned Benzie comparisons with Scott and Buchan, so his courage should be commended as he follows it up with an ambitious novel set in the Sixties. Catherine O'Hara flees Ireland to escape her abusive father and ends up on the streets of Glasgow. In time, she meets her husband-to-be, Francis. Both are atheists, with religious temperaments. They raise a son, Cameron, but when Francis dies of cancer, Catherine passes the boy to his brother Danny and his wife Agnes, and sets out to continue her pilgrimage of self-discovery.

"Pilgrimage" is a not inappropriate term: so many everyday actions are rendered here in the language of Roman Catholic devotion. Catherine finds work in Gianfranco's cafe, where using the cappuccino machine is likened to serving at the altar. She moves in with a man she meets there: Peter, a penniless Marxist painter torn by unfocused anger. Benzie's touch with character is sure. Catherine is fascinating, and we join her as she seeks to discover not only who she is, but how we can find out who we are. Are we the victims of our heredity, or can we remake ourselves?

Peter is perhaps descended from the hungry Glasgow writer in Archie Hind's The Dear Green Place, but with less humanity. He proclaims himself a "painter of the masses", yet he exists at an artist's discreet distance from ordinary people. Benzie follows Peter, though, in colouring his novel with a painter's eye. The play of light is a recurring theme: mirrors, candles, filtered sunlight. Many images are striking: a banana skin is like "a child's daubed sunshine in a painting"; Gianfranco's teeth, "too many passengers crowded into a bus".

Often, though, the painterly observations are laid on too thickly, bringing to mind the author's remark in Chandler's The Long Goodbye: "Writers. Everything has to be like something else." Often, a pile-up of detail slows the pace of the novel, and deadens its impact.

The Angle of Incidence is set in Glasgow, but there is not a single mention of the city's name I can recall. Mercifully, many ScotLit obsessions are also absent. Benzie uses a location to explore universal themes, and he peoples that place with memorable characters. Although sometimes clogged with descriptive writing, this is nonetheless a striking novel. Alex Benzie is a writer to reckon with.