Putting the clocks back

The Year's Midnight by Alex Benzie Viking, pounds 16; Joe Farrell sounds a celebratory bagpipe for an astonishing new novelist

Here is a book to take your breath away. A first novel written on the South American scale, by a writer with a style and a tone of voice all his own, who peoples his fiction with vivid characters, who displays the crafts of the born storyteller and who picks away, unobtrusively and persistently, at concerns and dilemmas which have troubled his own people down the centuries.

This novel is imbued with a Scottishness which would have been recognisable to Scott or Stevenson, but which has little in common with the outlook of more recent urban writers such as James Kelman or Irvine Welsh, whose idiom and characters are from the underclass of contemporary Glasgow or Edinburgh. Set in the north east of Scotland, it will present difficulties for any reader unaware of the identity of a "loon'' or a "cwean'', or who finds it hard to appreciate the character judgment expressed in the words "he's nae a loon to blaa aboot it, he'd aye lee yon tae ithers."

Such a reader will still find ample recompense in the richness of narrative, the lushness of style and the exercise of the historical imagination on display here. The village of Aberlevin is dominated by the grand steeple clock, destroyed by a mob after the hanging, in the 18th century, of one Andra Macpherson for sheep stealing. A pardon was on the way, but to forestall its arrival, the village magnates moved forward the bell-ringing mechanism and sent Macpherson to his death.

One century on, William Leckie gains for himself the nickname "Watchie'', after demonstrating an ability, acquired without training, to mend his father's broken watch. His skills are in mechanics and engineering, specifically in all branches of watchmaking or clockworking. It is to him that the provost, of the same name and lineage as the brigand Macpherson but the epitome of Victorian eminence, turns when he needs someone to repair the shattered clock.

In James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, his alter ego Stephen Dedalus, as he developed, might have been obsessed with beauty and the arts, but the mind of this quintessentially Scottish figure is taken up with applied, practical skills. The paradox is that in a Calvinist community, these gifts are not the object of universal admiration. The essentially theological culture of Aberlevin is recreated with an authentic blend of learning and inventiveness and, in this context, to manufacture is to compete with God the creator.

In Jamie Watts, Benzie has given life to a Presbyterian bigot who is cousin germane to Burns's Holy Wullie or James Hogg's Justified Sinner. Benzie is plainly playing games with the readers when he gives (almost) the name of the inventor of the steam engine to a theological luddite who sees traces of the Devil's handicap in the fabrication of instruments and contraptions not placed on earth by the Lord (or Laird) himself. This includes the steeple bell, to which Watchie dedicates more of his life than is sane.

It is no accident that Watchie's expertise lies in working with clocks rather than some other branch of engineering and several times reference is made to the classic representation of God as the great Watchmaker in the sky, or to the argument for the existence of God based on Design and the order supposedly existing in the universe. These are teasing, tantalising matters but then this is a novel which makes it appeal at various levels.

It could be seen as the story of an obsession with an inanimate thing, or could as one of the few peasant novels in English, or as a story of love as it is experienced by men with no emotional vocabulary and women not permitted to employ that vocabulary., Watchie falls in with Kirsty, the papist daughter of an Irish tinker, who also arouses, for different reasons, the interest of Watts. That may sound like a familiar triangle, but there is nothing predictable in the resolution of the affair.

At 572 pages, the novel merits the description "epic" and perhaps would have benefited from more editing, especially in the early sections. However, it never loses its grip and Benzie's capacity to embellish each character who has even a walk-on part, or to develop demonstrations of engineering skills into grand set-pieces is astonishing. On his debut, Alex Benzie reveals himself to be a master of the craft of fiction.

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