Books Fiction In Brief: When They Lay Bare
Sunday 16 May 1999
by Andrew Greig
Faber pounds 16.99
After the death of his mother, David Elliot returns to his birthplace - an estate in the Scottish Borders - and his estranged father. The father, Sim, is an aloof, distant, often cruel figure, keeping himself locked in a tower of his large house with his old diaries and a heart complaint. The tense, frangible balance between father and son is disturbed when a young woman carrying a set of antique plates on her back suddenly takes up residence in an estate cottage. The cottage itself is the magnet for local gossip: it's been empty for over 20 years, ever since the woman who lived there, Jinny - Sim's lover and the cause of his marital breakup - died and Sim tried for her murder.
The young woman claims to be Jinny's daughter, Marnie. She is back seeking justice for her mother and for her own life spent in the violence and terror of children's homes. David finds he cannot stop himself from visiting her and wanting her, even though he's recently got engaged. Sim will not face her, but her presence is enough to force him into brooding on the past and on his Not Proven verdict. And all the while, the movements of all three as they wander about the estate grounds are spied on through the binoculars of Sim's estate manager, Tat.
Andrew Greig has written an edgy, taut thriller, managing to make the wide open landscape of the Borders as claustrophobic as a crowded train carriage. It is a labyrinthine, generational saga of two ancient feuding families; but this is no Romeo and Juliet. It is a meditation on how time and history are not always linear and continuous, but coil back and back on themselves. "Whatever has happened," he tells us, "happens always."
Greig unfortunately stretches his story overmuch. Had it been two-thirds of its length, the reader might have been engaged right up to the denouement. As it is, you might find your mind wandering during the rather too frequent purple passages, working out the plot while Greig is busy lyricising mountain streams, familial ties and the inescapability of fate. By the time he finally reveals the crux of his plot, you've long overtaken him, sorted out who killed whom and who fathered whom, and are thinking about something else entirely.
His central literary trope - that Marnie's antique plates prefigure what is happening - is at first intriguing in a puzzling way, then just plain irritating. It has the undeniable feel of scaffolding put up to construct the novel that should have been taken down again. Sections begin with lengthy descriptions of the scenes in the plates, all of which relate rather obviously to the narrative action. It is at once a fey and clunking device. He is achieving the sense that the past defines the present without this rather self-consciously folksy framework.
has the bones of an intelligent and complex book; there's just a little too much flesh for my liking. That, and too many plates.
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