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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star