Short & Sweet: A Review of The Common Breath's The Middle of a Sentence...
Every so often a short story or prose collection comes along which helps to define the period in Scottish literature. In the 1980s there was Lean Tales which brought together three of the great writers of the day in Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens, and James Kelman, the 90s had The Children of Albion Rovers which introduced many to the work of those who became know as the Chemical Generation of writers, and 2011 saw the publication of The Year of Open Doors where the writing reflected the greater range and breadth of Scottish culture evident in the early years of the new millennium.
The Common Breath's The Middle of a Sentence feels like the next link in that chain, bringing together writers from all of the above, and introducing new voices to the conversation. It opens with two pieces from Jenni Fagan, ‘Ida Keeps Falling’ and ‘The Ship’, both of which work as a great introduction not only to the book but her writing, with themes of horror, the surreal, and, as with her recent novel Luckenbooth, the secret lives of others. James Kelman brings to mind his famous half-page short story ‘Acid’ from Not Not While The Giro with ‘A Hard Man’ when one man’s reaction to another man’s death is distilled to its very essence. As with most of the pieces, few words are wasted.
Janice Galloway wrings emotion out of everyday domestic conversations between three generations in ‘Moving On’, Graeme Armstrong explains what it means to be ‘Landit’ as he introduces us to life lived in ‘Heroin Heights’, Ron Butlin tells us of ‘The Legend of McGinley and the Seven McCanns’, men who are made from ‘Cement, anger and cement’ and who come from the hills to terrify the town, and Bernard MacLaverty ponders on what has fundamentally changed between losing ‘The Fountain Pen’ and finding it, and just what he can do to try and fix it.
Other well known names include A.L. Kennedy, Duncan McLean, Alan Warner, Regi Claire, David Keenan, and Kevin MacNeil – each reminding us just why they are among Scotland’s most exciting literary figures. There are also extracts from literary legends who are clearly inspirations for The Middle of a Sentence, including Anton Chekov and Katherine Mansfield, and publisher The Common Breath’s Brian Hamill sets out the ideas and ideals behind the book in a beautifully written ‘Introduction’.
But it is the new writers, from home and overseas, who take this collection to another level, proving that, while the present is built upon the past, the future is one of even greater promise. Julie Rea sets out how the little incidents in life often take on great significance in ‘The First To Leave’, a heart-breaking story of family affairs, Joey Simons tells a tale which could be psychological, or it could be fantastical, but either way the character in ‘The Catch’ has reached his wits end, and Rachael Fulton’s ‘Blood’ is a horrific tale of prejudice and violence passed down from father to son and his gang.
Kris O’Rourke gets to the twisted truth about a poltergeist called ‘Victor’, and Kirsten Anderson’s ‘The Space Between’ is almost tangible with the emotion on the page heightened by the way she allows the words to breathe on the page, in a manner not dissimilar to some of Jenni Fagan’s and Janice Galloway’s work, once again suggesting that there is a conversation going on between the writers in The Middle of a Sentence. As such it’s the perfect snapshot of Scotland’s literary landscape for the new decade.
The Middle of a Sentence is just one example of the great work The Common Breath are doing in terms of publishing and promoting new and overlooked writing. Others include Alan Warner and Brian Hamill's Good Listeners, A.L. Kennedy's Look At Me How, Tom Kromer's Waiting for Nothing, Frank Sargeson's All to Blazes, and, coming soon, Passing Through, a collection of Tom Leonard's poetry and prose. Add to these the limited edition Voices In The Dark pamphlets, the first set of which will be published on the 1st June. When taken together it's an astonishing body of work brought together over a relatively short period of time, and it proves that The Common Breath are not just a new voice in Scottish publishing, but an essential one.
A version of this review first appeared in SNACK Magazine.