Paperback reviews: Bannockburns, Field Notes From A Hidden City, The Dead Lake, Falling Into The Fire, This Magnificent Desolation


"Bannockburns" by Robert Crawford (Edinburgh University Press £19.99)

Rather like the devil having all the best tunes, it might seem on the face of it that Scottish independence has all the best stories. From John Barbour’s “The Bruce”, the 14th-century poem celebrating victory at Bannockburn, to the poetry of Robert Burns and on to Hugh MacDiarmid, not to mention Randall Wallace’s Braveheart film script, the appeal of independence for writers has lain largely in its romance, communicated through the Bannockburn battle: the epic struggles of a smaller nation against a larger one, the passionate celebration of a separate, identifiable culture.

Even the union’s waltz with romance that was conducted in the 19th century by Sir Walter Scott’s historical novels can be shown to have a precursor in independence, Crawford argues in this nevertheless fair-minded and responsible history; the now little-known Jane Porter pre-empted Scott with her hugely successful 1810 novel, The Scottish Chiefs, a Gothic fiction full of “heroic valour”. Scottish independence even attracted those south of the border, as the likes of Leigh Hunt responded to its radicalism. Scottish writers helped found the National Party of Scotland; today, they’re conspicuous by their absence of support for the union.

What might this artistic aligning by a nation’s writers of its identity with a single battle actually mean? Politically, it means the pro-union camp will have a hard time capturing hearts in the forthcoming referendum without that romantic connection; culturally, it means a dilemma for those wanting to stress independence through the emotional historical appeal of Bannockburn, without sounding “narrow-minded or Anglophobic”. In holding on to history, they must also look to the future. And so, Crawford lets poet Kathleen Jamie sum it up best: ‘“Come all ye’, the country says, ‘You win me, who take me most to heart’.”

"Field Notes From A Hidden City" by Esther Woolfson (Granta £8.99)

There’s a certain appeal in the notion of a “hidden” city, of an urban “other world” full of creatures we just don’t see. Woolfson has decided to focus on those creatures we do see, but whose place in our urban environment we either won’t acknowledge or enjoy as part of our own existence: the squirrels, pigeons (“rats with wings”), foxes, spiders, rats, and gulls we prefer to complain about and destroy if we can. Passing from the early winter through to the spring of the most recent coldest year, she charts with thought, compassion, and no little expertise, the coming and goings of those who share our city space, noting the violence of animals that is not, unlike that of humans, “purposeless”, or the need for birds to adapt to our glass-fronted cityscapes if they are not to crash into them. And, inevitably, but also comfortingly, what we learn about ourselves in the process of understanding what we mean by “wild animals” in such a domesticated space, and, most revealingly of all, how “selective [we are] in our loves and our hatreds”.

"The Dead Lake" by Hamid Ismailov (Peirene Press £12)

This superb novella by the Kyrgyzstan-born author Hamid Ismailov is beautifully economic and direct, as his narrator tells of a meeting he has on a train in Kazakhstan with Yerzhan, whom he takes to be a boy of 10 or 12 years’ old. In fact, Yerzhan is 27, but grew up in a village near where atomic weapons were tested. One day, he entered a lake that they were all forbidden to go near, and after that day, he stopped growing. His family don’t make the connections between the blasts that shatter the rural peace of their lives and Yerzhan’s lack of growth; they tie him to his bed, to horses, to anything that might stretch his bones. This reads like a modern fairy-tale, full of a surreal yet mundane horror.

"Falling Into The Fire" by Christine Montross (One World £11.99)

This account by a practising psychiatrist is the kind of confession doctors aren’t supposed to make: that they don’t always know what to do, and they may spend their entire working lives learning on the job. One of the most revealing cases that Montross comes across is the first one she describes here: that of Lauren, who devours objects to the point where she is regularly admitted to hospital so that doctors can remove anything from scissors to screwdrivers from her stomach. The relationship today between doctor and patient may be a long way from those 19th-century cases Montross occasionally refers to, but the issue of power is still a troubling one, as is our obligation to those who struggle to cope.

"This Magnificent Desolation" by Thomas O’Malley (Bloomsbury £8.99)

There’s something a little too manufactured, a little trying-too-hard, in O’Malley’s reach for our sympathy for the seemingly orphaned Duncan, who has spent most of his 10 years in a home run by a kindly but spare religious brotherhood. From the moment we learn he was possibly delivered to the home by his mother during a vicious winter storm, there’s a tug at the heartstrings that really should warn us, as Duncan’s mother eventually turns up with her car-load of personal problems to reclaim him. O’Malley can certainly write, and while this is an intimate story with universal themes, which in itself marks out his ambitions and his capabilities, it’s also just a little cloying.