The fourth novel by the poet, dramatist and Edinburgh Makar (the city’s poet laureate) Ron Butlin has a dramatic urgency that pulls the reader along, eager to know the fate of its compelling central character, Maggie. It left me with the same sick feeling about the injustices of a warped society that were inspired by the film Philomena, another tale of tortured mother love. Ghost Moon, however, has a more positive ending.
We first meet Maggie as a lady of 90 with dementia in a home. She is visited by her son Tom, who struggles to make sense of her ramblings about the past. The story gets into its stride when we flash back to Maggie’s youth in Edinburgh just after the Second World War. She has turned 30 and is desperate to fall in love and marry. Led astray by a man at a dance who tells her she is the one for him, Maggie accedes to his lascivious wishes, he takes off and she is left, pregnant and unmarried in a highly moralistic society.
Rejected by her family, she seeks a home with relatives on a Hebridean isle but is met with an equally hostile reception. At her wits’ end, she ends up in a B&B in Stornoway, waiting for fairer weather and the ferry home. She forms an attachment to the landlady’s son, Michael, a blind war veteran, before the truth about her “condition” catches up with her. Maggie returns to Edinburgh, alone and unloved, to find a place to stay, a job, and somewhere to have her child.
It is a tale of terrible adversity, and courage against hard hearts and harder social mores. Despite knowing from the nursing home scenes that Maggie keeps Tom, we are carried along with her state of anxiety as she uses every resource she can muster to save her child from forced adoption.
In fact, the chapters in the nursing home hold up the action, and feel a little laboured, though they make us impatient to return to Maggie’s story. Tom only hears the mangled memories of old age; the reader has a clarity he wishes he could have. I suppose that’s the point – how easily we discount the lives of the old because we don’t understand what they lived through.
The book’s strength is its pace and its vivid drawing of a mother’s battle with social exclusion. The rather staccato style was not what I was expecting from the Makar, although there are touches of memorable lyricism and poignant symbolism: the Ghost Moon of the title is the name Maggie gives to the emerging Moon as she pushes Tom in his pram: seemingly as distant as her dreams.