Headbutts and humour Chez Moira

The Borough by Michael Connon Serpent's Tail, pounds 8.99; Harry Ritchie welcomes a 'Glasgow novel' that overturns a few stereotypes

Glasgow has suddenly acquired a literary image every bit as strong as Hampstead. Just as a fictional setting in NW3 is inevitably associated with a plot about media trendies committing adultery on umarket upholstery, so the "Glaswegian novel" promptly evokes the guttural ramblings of the depressed and oppressed, with a few fights thrown in for light relief.

A brief account of its setting, cast and storyline will certainly suggest that Michael Cannon's debut novel, The Borough, is determined to live up to this daft stereotype. The eponymous district is poor and much of the action takes place in a local bar. Regulars at the Piper's Lament include Simon, a sub-postmaster frogmarched into a loveless marriage by Elsbeth, whose love of propriety is matched only by her hatred of Catholics; Simon's assistant, Peter, drinking too much and already on the shelf at 25; McCullen, a big, violent and consistently crapulous bampot who makes the life of his spouse Irene a misery; and the anonymous, mysterious narrator, whose affair with a young doctor means she sometimes has to venture outside the Borough's five dozen streets to her middle-class village home.

But it is within those five dozen streets that almost all the action takes place. In the bar, the post office, the cafe (the superbly christened Chez Moira) and the tenement flats, the principal characters try to cope with themselves and each other. Not always successfully. For example, it is Simon's secret love for Irene that inspires him to stand up to McCullen, but it means he becomes one of several key suspects when McCullen is murdered.

So - tenements, bars, bigotry, head-butts and murder! A pity, you might think, that Cannon couldn't pack in an Orange march for good measure. (He does.) But far from compiling an identikit fiction, Cannon has come up with a novel that is by turns gripping, moving, erotic and very funny. This is rather hard to prove for although there are quotable lines - McCullen drinking lager "as if anticipating prohibition", Simon recalling making love to Elsbeth through layers of her bedclothes so that "he felt he was penetrating a jumble sale" - Cannon gets his best results with a clever and sharply observed humour that is as dry as one of Elsbeth's Presbyterian Sundays.

It takes a while to know who's who and feeling what about whom, and Cannon shares with his walk-on character Dr Henry Carr (not a history lecturer but "an historian") a fondness for prolix ostentation, but even to mention these quibbles seems harsh. The Borough is a truly engaging novel which boasts a deft, urbane style. And it should act as a welcome reminder that Glaswegian fiction is miles better than its cliches.

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