Damon Galgut’s novel, The Promise, won the Booker Prize in 2021. In a Strange Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker almost ten years ago. This is a short book, split into three parts: ‘The Follower,’ ‘The Lover’ and ‘The Guardian’. I liked the ‘The Guardian’ best and ‘The Follower’ least. I doubt I’d have continued with the book if it hadn’t had the tag: Booker Prize-Winning Author on the cover. I’m not immune to hype.
Like the moral philosopher Dr Samuel Johnson on his tour of Scotland’s Western Isles seeking rarefied specimens of literature that expressed general, but universal truths. When a book has won a major prize and I don’t like it—such as Shakespeare’s work—the consensus is the reader rather than the writer lacks certain civilised values. In other words, he or she, you or me, is an uncouth ninny. Guilty in my case. I’ve heard so many times I should love Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example, and when I do, I’ll better understand its majesty. I didn’t dislike this book as much as I fucking hate A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, or I wouldn’t have continued reading it, but like everybody else my prejudices are my shortcomings.
‘It happens like this. He sets out in the afternoon on the track that has been shown to him and soon he leaves the little town behind. In an hour or so he is among low hills covered by olive trees and grey stones from which there is a view out over a plain that gradually descends to the sea. He is intensely happy, which is possible for him when he is walking out alone.’
The opening paragraph has the convention of a screen shot, which opens with scenery and then pans in to focus on the narrator. Present tense. Whatever happened has still to happen. The narrator is happy. The reader follows on.
We learn that the narrator is South African, like the author himself. He’s a tourist near Mycenae. He introduces himself to Reiner. He’s from Germany. His peccadillo is to dress in black. We find out he’s a control freak that always thinks he’s right. He wants to test himself against nature by walking great distances, building stamina and walking even greater distances. People and their cultures don’t interest him. Yet they fall into a homoerotic relationship, which is never consummated.
Damon is the wife or follower. This becomes clearer when Reiner comes to South Africa. His presence was not planned, but taken as a given. Reiner plans even longer walks through the continent. They divvy up tasks and what they’re meant to carry. But Damon is dependent on Reiner. He has no money, but notes down what he should owe. They have not been equals, but now the relationship is formalised as a wife dependent on her husband’s largesse.
But they do not become lovers. Damon hooks up with another group of white tourists who are also European. Christian is French, but can also speak English. Alice and Jerome are twins and Swiss. They speak only pigeon English. It is Jerome the beautiful boy, Damon falls in love with. But he can never get him alone and there’s awkwardness beyond language. Damon gets cut off from the group on the wrong side of the Malawian border post. He needs to get into Tanzania.
Paradise is never what is seems. Locals are dependent on the tourist trap, playing the role of faithful servants. Dr Johnson found it with the Scots. Damon finds it with the impoverished citizens of Africa, and later India. Damon for being so destitute seems to be always on the move and getting by without having worked much. Indolence pays. For Reiner, the explanation is he receives regular payments from home, and from saving from jobs he’s done, much like the twins. Money talks in any language. I’m not really sure what is says about Damon.
The novel is also told from Damon’s point of view. It’s his story. But instead of using the conventional ‘I’, narration is from an omniscient ‘he’ that is able to look at the present but also behave like an older and subjective ‘I’ able to evaluate choices made. That’s my reading of it.
The third part finds Damon middle-aged. He’s able to spend long periods in India. Again I’m not sure where the money comes from. He’s agreed to take a close friend Anna to South Goa. She agrees not to drink while she takes her medication that keeps her the right side of sanity. She flips quicker than a rupee tossed into the air. Anyone that’s dealt with mental illness will recognise what happens next. Damon hates her, but feels obligated to take care of her until he can get her back home. It’s a job he’s not prepared for, but he gets some help to navigate the Byzantium Indian hospital system by Anna, and other Europeans. (Anna is a former nurse who feels guilty about how her husband died.)
I’m beginning to tell the story, which in a review, isn’t great. We colonise what we know. Patronise what we don’t know. There’s a fair bit of Dr Johnson in each of us. Damon recognises that and that life is never more unfair than when it falls on you. Read on.
Roddy Doyle makes you smile. You just need to think of that line from The Commitments, ‘We are the black men of…’ whatever it was. I’m never very good at remembering. He wrote about the housing crisis in Dublin. Rosie (https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p09lk76z/rosie). How letting the market sort things out is darkest doublethink, whilst helping take a hammer to poor people’s lives. What I’m building up to saying is aye, Roddy Doyle, but nah Roddie Doyle, because like the rest of us, there’s more than one of him. And he’s prolific enough to stumble.
Life Without Children, ten short stories, set during Covid and Lockdown they’re readable, but unremarkable. I’ve already forgotten them and I read the last story this morning, something about memes and a man searching the streets of Dublin for his son. It’s easy to stick it to a Booker Prize winner. He (or she) isn’t going to come back and bite you on the arse. Being a nobody means you don’t have to arse-lick. Nobody cares what you think. I ask myself a simple question when I read books like this, if these stories were posted to various agencies and competitions how would they fare? You tell me—not about Roddy Doyle’s achievements—about Life Without Children? I’d love a little of that magic dust. And yes, that’s being small-minded. Read on.
So what, you might say. You probably know the trajectory that follows.
You’ve got Damian Barr, who grew up near Ravenscraig steelworks, a solid working-class town. Him being gay wasn’t his fault—or even a fault—but being a fucking Tory, Maggie & Me, was just a step too far.
Deborah Orr, Motherwell: A Girlhood, which just about sums it up.
You’ve got Kerry Hudson’s whimsical, Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (fiction) and Lowborn (factual) that deals with what it means to be working-class poor.
Meg Henderson’s wonderful Finding Peggy, but a bit before Hudson’s time.
Darren McGarvey, with his Poverty Safari.
Janice Galloway’s autobiographies This is Not About Me and All Made Up are my clear favourites.
She mentored Graeme Armstrong and The Young Team, the story of Azzy and Airdrie, if you’re fucking asking, and it’s told in dialect.
Scottish actor and comedian, Jane Godley, described as Nicola Sturgeon’s alter-ego (before she fucked up and went a bit too far and behaved like a politician—grabbing the money). Handstands in the Dark: A True Story of Growing Up and Survival, which told a tale of incest and marrying into a gangster’s family in the East End of Glasgow was, to my thinking, underrated before clicking on to Amazon to find over 2000 five-star ratings, which shows I was deluding myself, but not as much as Sturgeon.
We can even fling in Alan Bisset, Boyracers, which tries to do the impossible and make Falkirk cool.
And if we’re stretching it, Maggie O’Farrell I Am I Am I Am, seven brushes with death. She’s from Northern Ireland, but kinda Scottish.
The real daddy of fictionalised memoir, Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart and Shuggie Bain. A gay boy growing up in Glasgow’s housing estates and watching his mother slide under the couch with drink, while drowning, but claiming to be simply waving and doing her hair.
What does Aidan Martin add to this amorphous list, or, in other words, what kind of story can a guy in his late twenties tell us that we’ve not already heard? In terms of markets, what’s his Unique Selling Point?
Livingston isn’t very cool, which is a good starting point.
First chapter, ‘Groomed’. He’s standing outside McDonalds. ‘Heart racing.’ I don’t like heart racing, because it’s clichéd city. But we know what he’s talking about. He’s not there to have a Big Mac and chips. It’s in the chapter title. He’s fifteen and meeting an older man, with a North English accent, who calls himself Derek.
White-van man is a world of disappointment, but he’s organised. He’s got a room in a hotel booked and a cover story. He’s brought a bottle of Buckfast for Aidan, because that’s what you do. Fantasy is never reality.
‘Escapism,’ Sexual addiction, alcohol addiction, drug addiction.
‘You’re fuckin’ dead, after class…
‘Truth be told I wasn’t as violent as the lads I was always fighting. Some of them seemed at ease taking it to the next level. But the idea of jumping on someone’s head or stabbing them felt sickening to me. Survival was day to day.’
Plotting of beginning, middle and end is quite straight forward. Aidan is suicidal, but the reader knows that if he’s written a book he can’t be much good at killing himself. The writer’s job isn’t to make things simpler, but more complex.
Grandpa dead. Grandma deteriorating fast with depression and diagnosed as bipolar. His wee brother, ‘DJ was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma one of the rarest soft tissue cancers in the world’.
Bargaining with yourself. ‘Money was getting tight, so we started on the cheaper drugs too. Back on the eccies, speed and valies. We had a few attempts at crystal meth, and I found myself smoking an unknown stuff from foil.’
Aidan had yet to hit his rock bottom, in Alcohol and Drug Anon language. But he’d a Higher Power looking out for him. This is shown in graphic form.
‘I self-harmed with knives…some otherworldly force flung the knives out of my hand.
All I can say is I know it truly happened.’
The reader knows Aidan is going to make it. But he’s honest about it. His relapses were to do with a lack of humility. I’ve heard the same story in so many forms. My brother, for example, telling me he was just going to have a few pints. Aye, we knew, what that meant. Deep down, so did he.
We’re in the world of repetition. Even the language becomes boring and clichéd. Recovery is slow. Aidan at 25 is at West Lothian College. He will have relapses. He will find himself. The reader knows that. God help us, if I start quoting Rumi and Leonard Cohen, We’re all broken. There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
I’m a reading addict. The pleasure of recognition lies not in revelation—although that has its place—but in resonance.
‘I am grateful to be clean.’
Hallelujah has nothing to do with religion, but everything to do with a clean heart that cries out. Read on.
Hi Dougie, I’ve had a look at your manuscript. We both know that it’s hard trying to get anything published when we write about people like us, using the language we speak—Scottish dialect. Remember all that fuss when James Kelman, for example, wrote in stream- of-consciousness, working-class dialect and a judge ofThe Booker Prize winner 1994, a Rabbi, no less, resigned because she (it might have been a he) thought How Late It Was, How Late was shite? Dialect in your manuscript isn’t as combative as Kelman’s and it runs light touch as, for example, William McIlvanney. You’re far more likely to pick up readers and have far more chance of finding a publisher because of this.
The trick is to be consistent. And I must admit you did a great job. I only spotted two slippages and both were the same (you were consistent in that too, which is a good sign). When the narrator leads with ‘It got her goat’, when, for example Agnes Bain questions her son, Shuggie, while living in Pithead, ‘Are you calling me a liar?’ I think you mean: It got on her goat. He got on her goat. Not he got a goat. Small things, but you might want to look at that again.
Your debut novel will never win the The Booker Prize, but if you’re looking for a publisher most people that write books offering writing advice tell you to never start with mood music or the weather.
‘The day was flat.’
Do you need this?
The day was flat. That morning his Shuggie’s mind had abandoned him and left his body wondering down below. The His empty body went listlessly through his routine, pale and vacant-eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated above the aisles and thought only of tomorrow. Tomorrow was something to look forward to.
That’s an intriguing opening paragraph to your manuscript. And it leaves the reader with a question, why is tomorrow different from today? Your book begins and ends in the same place: Glasgow, The South Side 1992. The titular Shuggie Bain, fifteen, going on sixteen, going out into his past and coming back to himself. Time doesn’t stands still. He bears witness to his mum, Agnes Bain’s passing.
But Shuggie is not the sole narrator. That would tie your book to his life experience. And when you take the reader back to Sighthill, 1981, Shuggie’s experience as a boy aged four going on five isn’t enough to carry a book. He’s not old enough to know what marks him out as being different from other wee boys, as being shunned, bullied, spat upon. Different in a way that his brother, Alexander, aged 15 and nicknamed Leek is different, able to retreat somewhere inside himself. Or the way his eldest sister Catherine, aged 17, is different but the same, as the other women at the Friday night card school in Agnes’s mum and dad’s high-rise flat. By giving yourself an omniscient narrator you give license to travel through time and follow your characters to where the story takes you. This works well, in your circular narrative journey, but like any superpower it must be used cautiously.
Agnes Bain, telling, not showing, since the novel is mostly about her being an alky, is a good place to start.
‘To be thirty-nine and have her husband and her three children, two of them nearly grown, all crammed together in her mammy’s flat, gave her a feeling of failure. Her man, who when he shared her bed, now seemed to lie on the very edge, made her feel angry with the littered promises of better things.’
Shug Bain raping his second wife, Agnes, beating and humiliating her on a trip to Blackpool worked great. It showed exactly the kind of psychopathic narcissist he remains in an aging body with is sweep-over bald head. His holy of holies was his hole. The father of fourteen children, none were loved, but some like Shuggie were an embarrassment, not a chip off the old block and best jettisoned. If Shug Bain was born a rich American he might well have been elected 45th President. But in telling, not showing, his true vindictiveness finds an art form. When he takes Agnes and his children from the relative safety of Sighthill and her mum and da’s house to Pithead, it had been a test to see if she would follow him to the gates of hell.
‘She had loved him, and he needed to break her completely to leave her for good. Agnes Bain was too rare a thing to let someone else love. It wouldn’t do to leave pieces for another man to collect and repair later.’
Crawling around the warped logic of his psyche works well. But the constant mirroring shift in point of view from one character to another can be overdone.
Catherine looking at her half-cousin Donald Bain, who she marries to escape her mum’s alcoholism and back again, to show what the other is wearing, or how they feel, is a neat trick, but could be classified as overwriting. A shift from Agnes’s lover and potential saviour in Pithead, Eugene’s point of view, for example, back to Shuggie’s in the following paragraph tells the reader little we need to know.
‘For a while Eugene said nothing. The strange little boy had stunned him to silence. ‘You know son, maybe it’s time you thought more about yourself. Leave your mommy for a while.’
Here again we have someone looking queerly at Shuggie. We get it at that point. No need to over-emphasise and over-write.
‘The secondary school was bigger than any he had seen. He had waited and cautiously followed a boy that lived on the landing downstairs. The boy was tanned and the colour of summer holidays. At the street corners he turned around and with big brown eyes he looked suspiciously at the little boy who followed him like a stray.’
‘Following like a stray,’ is clichéd. And I’m not sure you need a change in point of view.
For example, a simple tweak such as: at street corners he turned and his big brown eyes glanced in my direction. You retain your (Shuggie’s) point of view, which carries on into the following paragraphs and his experience of disappointment and alienation the East End school that he felt in Pithead. Dreams of a new start—dashed.
These are only suggestions. As the author you are omniscient, but also omnipotent. It’s your shout. Your characterisation stays the right side of caricature. Most debut novelists when trying to decide whose story it is, for good reasons such as they lack a more mature writer’s experience of life and what it takes to write a book, go to narrow. Agnes Bain is the focal point of your book. Shuggie Bain whose name is on the cover is the most consistent, but you go wide. Other characters get to tell their story.
Agnes is brutally raped by her husband, and another taxi driver. She’s also found with her tights ripped off at a party under a pile of coats. She’s diddled into sex by Big Jamie and countless others. She’s beaten and demeaned. But by going wide in your characterisation you highlight an episode even more chilling, and give your novel greater resonance and stickability with readers.
When Little Lizzie, Agnes’s god-fearing mother, somehow finds herself pregnant by the greengrocer she owes tick-money, while her husband, Wullie, is away fighting in the second world war, the reader fears the worst when he comes home. Agnes is still a baby, daddy loves and coos over. Little Lizzie doesn’t get it in the neck as we’d expect. Wullie understanding and soothing. He reassures her even after she admits to have done everything she could to get rid of the child before it was born. He takes the bastard child out for a walk in the pram, but comes back without the child or the pram. He no longer wants to talk about Little Lizzie’s mistake. He’s dealt with it. This sub-plot or story within a larger narrative helps set the background tone to the world Agnes lives in. Poverty isn’t just about money, it’s about circumstances and choices, who gets to say what. A mother can’t even mention the child she held and lost, because that wouldn’t be right, isn’t a fiction, and had the ring of a world-weary truth.
Poverty is the living coffin. Being an alky the nails in the coffin for Agnes and her dependents. Every generation writes its own epitaph. You got it with your sign spray-painted outside the pit in Pithead. ‘No Coal, No Soul, Only Dole’. In particular, you nail what it’s like to be dependent on the Monday book, followed by the Tuesday book of £8.50. No waffle. No generalisations. Being explicit ties you in with so many other great writers from Kerry Hudson, Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma (2012) Lowborn:Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns (2019) to Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and writers like Emile Zola that know the price of everything, especially failure.
I was brought up with the Provie man and Radio Rental for our telly. I imagine you stretching it a bit here. I thought renting tellys—paying 50p for programmes—went out in the seventies. But I bow to your judgement. Diddling the gas meter or electricity meter, well, that’s still an ongoing story. But I imagine it’s more difficult, if not impossible, now.
There’s a caveat I just don’t get. No milk in the fridge. No food on the table. No electric fire to turn on. Everything that can be pawned or sold is gone. Yet, Agnes is always on the phone. Where I came from, phones cost money. There was a waiting list for them to get installed and it cost (roughly) £110. That doesn’t include rental charges or call charges. When Agnes moves to Pithead, she’s immediately on the phone. When she moves to The East End, she’s on the phone—for taxis she can’t pay for—yet still on the phone. She even sends a phone cut off at the wire to Leek, like a severed head, emphasising their relationship was done. Yet, again, she’s on the phone afterwards. I suggest you look at that again.
Agnes’s relationship with her phonebook is part of who she thinks she is. Her relationship with the drink curdles the soul. I recognise the symptoms and you’ve caught them in flight.
‘Well, you get a little bit stronger every day, but the drink is always there waiting. Doesn’t matter if you want to run from it, it’s still right behind you like a shadow. The trick is not to forget’.
We know what’s at stake. And we care enough about your characters knowing they’ll fail, but we can’t just look away. That’s page-turning power.
I hope my suggestions make sense. And I wish you well with your debut novel. I’d a similar novel set in Clydebank in the early ninety-seventies and nobody wanted to publish it. Maybe it just wasn’t good enough. But I hope you do better. Don’t let the bastards grind you down. Your novel is great. If in doubt, write another, better, novel. Send me it, I’ll have a look. Writers write, reading always.
Grace Notes was shortlisted for the 1997 Booker Prize. Reading this book, over twenty years later and it’s easy to see why. Quality rings true. The narrator is easy to describe. Bernard Mac Laverty does all the heavy lifting for us, when we look over his shoulder and read the programme for her performance of Vernicle, a first performance, just up the road from me, Wood Road, Partick.
Catherine Anne McKenna was born in Co. Derry, and studied composition at Queen’s University, Belfast and later at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow. Winner of the Moncrieff-Hewitt Travel Award she studied composition with Anatoli Melnichuck in Kiev. She has now left teaching to devote herself to full-time composition. She lives in Glasgow.
When the reader first meets Catherine she’s going home for her da’s funeral. She’s had a falling away and a falling out. Falling away from her convent school faith and a falling out with her da, Brendan. He’s a publican, well-liked, respected. She’s the prodigal child, gifted beyond her years with an ability to compose music. Her secrets are light and dark.
While she was away o’er the water, from the killing and bigotry, she had a baby, Anna. Bernard had a grandchild he never met or knew about. Her mother never got to dandle on her knee.
The darkness comes from depression. ‘Scorpions in her head.’ She has to negotiate the familiar landscape of her youth with these secrets weighing her down. Going home is the first part of the book. Familiar smells and tastes made foreign. The past rising up to meet her. Transubstantiation.
Derry, is no longer, home. Nor can it be. For one thing, her mother is there. For another her father is not. She admits to being like him in some ways. The father of her child, Dave, like her father, is a drinker too.
‘In a strange way it was he, who’d helped her. The night, the first night he’d hit her – she saw as a turning point. It was the next day she’d slipped out of the house and walked the beech with Anna for most the day…Dave was cooking, getting something greasy into him before going out to the pub – a ‘good lining’ he called it.
…What happened to your mouth? he said.’
Catherine leaves him as she leaves her father and mother. Goes back to the mainland, with the child, a room in a basement at her pal, Liz’s house. The equivalent of a writer composing in an attic. No hope and every hope competing with life and the feeling nothing will get done. Nothing will get finished. And anyway, it will be shite. The same kind of shite that gave us St Celia as the patron saint of music, based on a mistranslation and misunderstanding
Yet, to make time, to find space to create, is at the heart of Catherine’s existence. A possible route out of depression. But more than that. Full of grace, overflowing.
‘For two months now she has written every day at this table beneath the window, looking up at people’s feet as they passed by. Raiding her own bank was how she thought of it.
Bernard Mac Laverty raided his own bank. All writers do. When it comes to the weight and weighing, lead and brass, standard fare, as I know that heavy feeling too well. You’ll find here is where the gold is buried. Read on.