IN AN AGE when 'dirty realism' has become fashionable, and praise is heaped upon the spare prose of terse young men, Candia McWilliam seems a little out of place. She has been accused of wordiness, of over-elaboration, of being too clever by far.
Her third novel, Debatable Land, makes no concession to her critics. It seems at first to be an old-fashioned sort of book: the story of a yacht's voyage, and the voyages of the spirit made by the six characters on board. There are storms and gales and howling winds that mirror the sailors' internal conflicts: all very dramatic in a 19th-century sort of way. And, yes, there are difficult sentences and lots of long words, but the book is also completely absorbing - remarkably so, given the breadth of McWilliam's ambitions.
She sets out to do a number of different things. Her novel is not only the tale of a journey through foreign lands (the colonised islands of the South Pacific), nor simply an intriguing account of the shifting relationships of people living together in the confined space of a boat. Three of the characters are Scottish: Alec Dundas, a painter from Edinburgh, 'had come so far from home in order to see it clearly'; Logan Urquhart, the yacht's wealthy owner, a Scots American, fleeing the misery of his Glaswegian childhood spent 'in a big black house with small rooms'; and his wife Elspeth, raised in the Borders, the long-disputed 'debatable land' of the novel's title.
All three slip away from the present in remembering their Scottish pasts, and it is the Edinburgh of Alec's childhood that is perhaps most vividly evoked: the little house where he grew up ('the grey of spurned beaches, made of concrete harled with small pebbles that appeared to be picked from the noses of hills'); the dark of an old man's flat ('the room hardly shone, though it did glint, with sipping velvet, tormented horn, snapped ormolu, and colours made to be flattered by dust, to shine through grease - coral, amber, the slick internal pink of shells'); the factory where his mother gutted fish ('it was slippery with the snarls of guts that had been thrown in the bin and missed it').
McWilliam also brings in the voices of the yacht's other sailors: Nick Pederson, who has escaped from Essex to live at sea; a pretty young Englishwoman, Gabriel Shepherd; and her New Zealand cabin-mate, Sandro Hughes. Each of the six characters has a different way of retailing the voyage. Gabriel describes the story into a tape recorder, and sends the tapes home instead of letters. Sandro, who hears her mutterings, is struck by how different Gabriel's account is to his own, which he writes in long letters to his mother. And Elspeth, increasingly unhappy as the journey progresses, sends herself
to sleep at night by writing soporific
novels in her head, 'apparently a preferable reality to her own'.
Alec and Logan, meanwhile, tell each other brief, artfully edited versions of their childhoods - and 'in the mind of each man settled carefully coloured false pictures of the other's early life'. But when Elspeth describes to Alec her childhood, and her memories of trailing around ancient monuments with her parents, he reaches out and tries to insert himself into her story: 'I will have been the boy . . . that you just did not see as you drooped about counting to a hundred and wishing for an ice-cream with your dad.'
Candia McWilliam's frequent suggestions that all the voices in her narrative are unreliable seem tantalising. But in the end, her characters tend to talk in more or less the same way: they are mostly erudite, occasionally abstruse, but more often full of startling insight - in short, like the author herself, just the sort of companion one would want on a long journey.
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