James Robertson (2021) News of the Dead

The cover of James Robertson’s latest novel, News of the Dead, has a blurb from Ali Smith: ‘A marvellous novelist’. I spend much of my time looking at marketing techniques, when I should be reading, or even writing. Get a big hitter, preferably Scottish, like Ali Smith to say something nice about your writing and copy and paste it to all of your other books. It doesn’t need to be a novelist or writer. Billy Connolly’s good press (Jane Godley Handstands in the Dark). A gold-leaf endorsement of Scottishness and quality. I don’t know Billy Connolly or Ali Smith. I have met James Robertson on the page before. I looked for a review of his debut novel I might have written, but couldn’t find it. His novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack was stupendous. All the fine granular details have fell out of my brain like sand in a broken sandglass.

News of the Dead offers that old trick of bringing things back to life. There’s a ghost that only a young boy, Lachie, aged eight, can see.  

‘Lachie Darroch came to see me, for the first time in a while. It was autumn, the leaves were turning and falling fast, and most afternoons it was cold enough to light the stove before it got dark.’

‘…What’s a ghost?’ he asked.

…He had this story and he knew he could tell it to me and I would not laugh. Or tell anybody else.

‘…A girl. She had a white dress on. Well kind of grey. It was quite dirty, I think.’

I’ve used that trick too, in one of my longer stories, Lily Poole. There’s a holy man. Saint Conach— the story setting, Glen Conach. I’d written something about that too, but hadn’t finished it. Stories are brought to life by believers, so that’s OK, I’m not sure I believed in it enough. No church recognised Conach as a Saint, but a follower left a Latin chapbook, which showed that like all men, he had failings and was a sinner.

Marj, the old buddy, Lachie visits, has an inkling who the ghost was, or indeed is. Ghosts an echo of the past—I was here—but also for some reason a marker of the present.

The Journal of Charles Kirkliston Gibb, a penniless antiquarian, which begins Sunday, 2nd July 1809 takes us back to the beginning of the nineteenth century and before that to the Jacobites and  Highland Clearances. His transcription of a Latin manuscript of Saint Conach and his miracles takes us back to the time of the Picts. A thread of time runs from the Middle Ages to coming to the Glen of the Corona Virus. A backwater that reflects back what Scotland was and is in a whimsical and realistic manner.  

A good book asks questions of you. News of the Dead leaves you thinking this could happen, or this happened. The circularity of time provides answers. Often, not as we expect, but perhaps recognise. Read on.

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