Books: Unquiet graves on wuthering heights

Robert Crawford heads for the hills and enjoys a ruggedly lyrical retelling of the Border ballads
When They Lay Bare

by Andrew Greig

Faber & Faber, pounds 16.99, 322pp

ANDREW GREIG'S first novel Electric Brae (1992) reeled with sexual electricity, occasionally toppling into melodrama. His second, The Return of John Macnab (1996), took us on to the Scottish hills and reincarnated John Buchan. In his new fiction, Greig, a Scottish poet and mountaineering writer in his forties, returns both to sexual drama and to upland literary reincarnation. At its best, his book is haunting, lyrical, and deviously exciting; sometimes, though, it is like Wuthering Heights with crampons.

Like Emily Bronte's great novel, is about the ferocious power of a love affair that goes on to engulf a second generation of lovers. Set where "the wind blows over the moor, wearing even the stone away," Greig's tale presents its own wuthering landscape of the Scottish Borders with rasping lyricism.

Like Bronte, he favours a complex geometry of multiple narrators. The narrative follows scenes set out on china plates carried by a mysterious young woman. These plates tell stories from the Border ballads, especially "The Twa Corbies". Greig's Barbour-clad, Land Rovering folk are doomed to repeat these violent narratives. He taps into a recognised vein of Scottish writing. As in Stevenson, we have the son feuding with yet reincarnating his father; as in the balladeer James Hogg, free will and the slipperiness of identity are to the fore.

Greig has a powerful sense of the Border ballads, and his book is a kind of paean to them. When they are quoted directly, one senses a breathy excitement. Yet having their tales mediated through the plates is a needlessly fussy device. Alan Garner in The Owl Service used his crockery better.

Predestination, and a simultaneous wish to love and to exorcise the past, are at the heart of this traditionally Scottish novel. Its literary sources make it at times too obviously echoic. Though Wuthering Heights may be its template, its title and technique summon up several other works. Greig surely and rightly admires Lewis Grassic Gibbon; often seeks a prose which bonds love, land, and language. Often, this voice is scratchily evocative; sometimes it seems too mannered, too sub-Sunset Song.

The plot twists and flexes like the lovers in Greig's erotic debatable lands. His Borders are borders of sexuality, truth and fiction, life and death, more than boundaries between Scotland and England. In a book about laying bare identity, the plot has a detective element; we wonder about the identity of a key character, Marnie. Is she or isn't she the daughter of Sim and Jinny, the first generation of lovers?

Such questions keep the reader hungry, but the book should have been shorter, barer, in keeping with its title. The ballads linger and leap, but never seem over-wordy. This is certainly Greig's finest novel to date , but there is still a sense that he is finding his bearings.

The borderline between prose and poetry is a hard one to tread. Greig, with his clear love of weathered landscape, and his fine, lyrical eye, brings substantial poetic gifts to fiction. What he needs to find are less cluttered narrative devcies. This is a book that fascinates and frustrates. Fascination, though, is in the ascendant. Greig the novelist is getting closer to the summit.