Never Mind the Width, Feel the Quality: James Robertson’s ‘And the Land Lay Still’
Since the good old days of Sir Walter Scott Scotland has not been well served by what can loosely be described as the epic historical novel. This is understandable as Scott is often seen as the father of the European historical novel, and his shadow still looms large over Scottish literature. We seem to produce writers who deal with the minutiae of an individual’s life, the hardships and horrors, portray kitchen sink dramas, and apply existential angst by the bucketful. Perhaps the huge success, or more likely the heavy prose, of The Great Waldo traumatised a nation for centuries to come.
I’m not being entirely fair here. Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scot’s Quair is epic in it’s scope, but any way you look at it it’s a collection of three individual novels, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark has similar, if not greater, ambition, but I would argue that it is also, on the simplest of levels, two books as one. Iain Banks has some ‘mini-epics’ which revolve around single families through the generations, and there are some who would suggest that Trainspotting is an epic novel, although it is really a collection of interconnected short stories. However last year saw the publication of James Robertson’s And The Land Lay Still, and Scotland had the big beast of a novel it had been crying out for.
It deals with Scotland’s social, political and cultural changes from the end of The Second World War to just after the formation of our devolved Parliament. Robertson uses different but connected individuals to tell his tale which touches on the results of returning from war, North Sea Oil, the rise and fall of the Unions, the rise, fall, and rise of Scottish Nationalism, revolutionary communism, immigration, Thatcher and the tartan Tories, World Cup glorious failure, the decline of heavy industry, referendums on devolution, and finally post-devolution hopes and dreams. The writer’s love for his country and its people is on every page, but so is his frustration at the more destructive aspects of Scotland’s culture, and the old favourites of violence, sectarianism, and, quite notably, drink make regular appearances. In fact almost every character bevvies heavily,it’s one of the few constants in a novel, and a nation, which both undergo remarkable change.
The characters’ lives are carefully interwoven, and the structure of the novel is a thing of wonder in itself. We are first introduced to Michael, a photographer who is undertaking to publish a collection of his more famous and successful father’s photographs. He discovers a family holiday snap amongst the professional photos, and remembers the strange traveller who took it, and who handed the young Michael a small pebble. From this enigmatic opening we are drawn through the lives, and loves, of a very different group of individuals, whose connections are only fully revealed as the story draws to a close.
The loves are as important as the lives as it is the search for, or the absence of, love that is often the reason behind what drives the characters to act as they do. This is a clever idea as if we were asked to believe that the various activists, politicians, psychopaths, spies, and eccentrics that populate the pages acted only out of a sense of moral obligation or duty then this could have been a very worthy novel, instead of the human one it is. Robertson is a master of characterisation and here he manages the almost impossible by juggling a large cast of characters and keeping readers interested in them all. I can honestly say there were no sections where I wanted to rush through to return to a previous story line. I will say that the character of Don, a decent man who tries to do the best for his family and friends, but who still carries barely deserved guilt, is a phenomenal creation in that it is his very ordinariness that makes him exceptional. He represents the ‘Everyman’, and does so with great fortitude.
And The Land Lay Still is not only the best Scottish novel I read last year, it’s the best I’ve read in years. The last one that I held in this regard was Ali Smith’s The Accidental which was published in 2005, and which is a very different book. Robertson is proving that he is a writer that we can consider in the same breath as Gray, Kelman, Kennedy and Smith; those writers who I consider to be the best of the best. What they do that places them above their peers is to have extra layers to their writing, layer’s you have to work at to uncover all that is on offer, and none of us should be afraid of a little hard work.
I can’t wait to see what Robertson does next. So far his run of novels The Fanatic (see The Fanatic…), Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack and now And The Land Lay Still is pretty close to being flawless. There are many of us who were poorly served at school when it came to learning about Scottish history, in fact Robertson has claimed one of the reasons for writing this book was to explore this history for himself. If you want to know more about the second half of Scotland’s social, political and cultural past then there are many great books that you can find to help fill the gaps, but they are to be found in the history section of your local bookshop (those that are left), and none of them will be as well written and entertaining as And The Land Lay Still. Education, information and entertainment, you really can’t ask for much more from a novel. Except perhaps, as Edmund Blackadder once suggested, to have it ‘crammed with sizzling gypsies’.