Waterline, By Ross Raisin

Down and out in Glasgow and London
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The Independent Culture

Mick's wife Cathy has died prematurely. The family home in Glasgow is full of relatives and their continued presence is unsettling him.

He gets on well with his son Robbie and his daughter-in-law Jenna; not so well with his other son, Craig. Mick suspects that Craig blames him for Cathy's death, because Mick worked in an asbestos plant and Cathy died of mesothelioma.

Soon enough, however, they all depart and Mick is left to his bereavement. He starts sleeping in the garden shed, too traumatised to stay in the house with its memories of Cathy. Shortly after, he takes a coach to London, thinking a change of scene might help.

This is Ross Raisin's second novel. His debut, God's Own Country, was set in Yorkshire and concerned a rural sociopath with longings for under-age girls. A Yorkshireman himself, Raisin offered his troubled protagonist's thoughts in finely crafted dialect, part of an arresting feat of characterisation and voice.

Waterline's central figure also places himself beyond society and its rules, but the more immediately apparent comparison lies in Raisin's ongoing mining of language. Mick brims with colloquialisms: "beeling" (angry), "boak" (vomit), "scaffie" (a derelict) and so on. The vernacular is only one aspect of the vitality and inventiveness of Raisin's writing. Mick's wife took him to task for idleness, so "this frequenting of the Empress every afternoon and sitting about the house like a pound of mince isnae helping anybody". Later, Mick is forced indoors by inclement weather: "It is the cold that pushes him on, chibbing like a gun between the shoulder blades."

As the glories of northern cities recede further into the past, the brutalities of their heydays are blurring, replaced by vistas of permanent austerity. Mick personifies this decline and Raisin's portrait of this wry sexagenarian is persuasive and compassionate. But Raisin is butting up against a couple of generations of Scottish writers. James Kelman, in particular, has rendered the voices of industrial and post-industrial Glasgow in streams of consciousness of raw acuity. Whether Raisin reaches the same level of engagement with this subject matter is moot.

There are niggling issues of style, too. Using the present tense introduces an undermining melodrama into scene-setting: "So this is grief ..."; "It is hot and he can't sleep"; "Morning. He lies there a long time." More importantly, Mick does not arouse the same disturbing expectations as the narrator of God's Own Country, in which, early on, we had intimations of a deranged denouement. Mick lacks his dark charisma and potential for mayhem, and by around page 50, it is clear he cannot carry the novel on his own.

The mesothelioma strand of the story peters out, and much of the remaining narrative concerns Mick's descent in London. Distressing as this is, at times it possesses an unduly mediated quality, lending an unfortunate cosiness that contrasts with harder edged, real-life accounts of dereliction (of which John Healy's The Grass Arena remains the classic). When it comes to rough sleeping, it is difficult for Raisin to fill in any blanks for us because in these precarious times, sadly, we are well aware of just how far and how fast we can fall.

There is a sense of Raisin marking time with Waterline, but there can be no doubt that he is a writer of outstanding talent and it will be fascinating to see what he comes up with next.