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.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all