Happie Talk: Robert Alan Jamieson’s Da Happie Laand…
Updated: Sep 29, 2022
You ask for an epic Scottish novel and two come along at once. I recently reviewed James Robertson’s superb And The Land Lay Still (see Never Mind the Width, Feel the Quality: James Robe…) which is my favourite novel of recent times, and I’ve finally got round to reading Robert Allan Jamieson’s Da Happie Laand which does for Shetland and the island’s diaspora what Robertson’s novel did for the Central Belt in that it looks at history through individual stories, familial mysteries and historical documents.
Like Robertson’s book, Da Happie Laand is a hugely ambitious novel of the type that Scotland rarely produces. It looks at much more than one person’s story or a moment in time, but tries to contextualise Shetland’s past viewing it from the present. The novelist presents himself as the editor of a number of documents which he takes delivery of and which piece together to make up the novel.
There is so much going on that it is difficult to take it all in at the first reading. There were many sections I had to re-read more than twice, something I haven’t had to do since ploughing through Jack Kerouac’s Doctor Sax. But in this case the difficulty lies not in unusual or unfamiliar language, except in some of the transcriptions of interviews, but the multitude of voices and sources that are referred to. There is a magical/realist feel to parts of the novel, as the reader is never quite sure of people or place. Much of the story is told in the form of letters, journals and interviews which our editor is charged with making sense of. There are appearances, indirectly, from Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, placing this novel in a Scottish literary context that is more than simply modern.
Some of the writing is sublime and stays with you long after the story has been forgotten. Like fellow islander Kevin MacNeil (see It’s The Stornoway Way: An Interview with Kevin Ma…) Jamieson’s love and mastery of poetry is obvious in his prose. Here is a short example:
“I’m breathing deeply, chest pounding. I can see the organ on the heather, the eye watching nothing, removed from its casing. The lamb lies still, short curls of wool tight over its warm body. It lies on the heather, peaceful, blind. The mother’ll stay with it till it’s cold. Then the the crows’ll eat, ants’ll clean the evidence away. Only a few bones a child might pick up and admire, might take home to identify. A few wisps of wool in nearby nests. A clue caught on a barbed wire spike.”
There are many such passages, but they are mostly to be found in the ‘diary’ sections relaying the story of David Cunningham and his search for his missing father which date from the year 2000. These are my favourite parts of the book, which I realise says as much about my reading preferences than the book as a whole in that I am more interested generally in the contemporary rather than the historical, but it also flags up the novel’s major problem.
There is not one uniting voice which holds the various ‘texts’ together. Jamieson may have done too good a job of becoming the editor rather than writer, and he is an unreliable one at that. New Zetland, where much of the story is placed, is a fictionalised land, at least in part. This is fine, but it causes more questions than answers, the central one being; where is da happie laand? Shetland (or Zetland) or New Zetland? Maybe this shouldn’t matter, maybe it’s both, but the question typifies many of the unanswered questions that the reader is left with.
Da Happie Laand is a hugely ambitious novel that almost pulls it off. It has interesting commentary on religion, language, belonging, colonialism and the unreliable nature of the written word. There are nods to Scott, Hogg and Stevenson, but I would have liked to have read more of R.A.Jamieson as it is when his voice is on the page that the novel really sings. Having said that it is still one of the most interesting, informative and lyrical novels I have read this year, and that’s against some stiff opposition.
It is one I will have to re-read to fully get every story, and as such demands close-reading and work on the part of the reader. This is not a problem as such, but when a novel requires such reassessment it is normally because there is an ending which can only be properly understood by doing so. In this case it is to try and separate all the stories and threads which are to be found in Da Happie Laand and, ironically, with further editing, I feel that the novel would have overcome these problems. It may seem that I’m being harsh on Da Happie Laand, and I really enjoyed reading it. But it is on the brink of greatness, and that is the most frustrating place to be of all.