The Rule Of Three: A Review Of Helen McClory's Bitterhall...
2021 is proving to be a memorable one for Scottish writing, with some of our finest writers publishing new novels. Near the top of the list is Helen McClory’s Bitterhall. McClory’s previous novel Flesh of the Peach is one of the most overlooked of the last 10 years – loved by those who read it, but there were far too few of those. She is probably best known for her short story collections On the Edges of Vision (winner of the Saltire First Book of the Year Award in 2015), Mayhem & Death (which was widely praised, including warm words from Ali Smith and Margaret Atwood) and the literary sensation that was, and is, The Goldblum Variations.
It’s fair to say that Bitterhall carries a lot of expectations, perhaps more than most second novels, but from the opening pages you are back in McClory’s odd and uncanny world, one where nothing is as it seems. From the opening quote, from literary critic and rhetorician Hélène Cixous, readers are conscious that McClory has written a novel where both writer and reader are aware of their relationship, and the act of reading itself (art critic and theorist John Berger also gets a mention). In Bitterhall everyone and everything is there to be read and deconstructed. There is even a book within the book, one which exhibits a strong hold over people and events, and which could be considered a character in its own right.
The story covers the same events told differently by three central protagonists, what cineastes often refer to as ‘The Rashomon Effect’ after the Akira Kurosawa film where questions of subjectivity versus objectivity are asked through different points of view, but, perhaps in this case, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a more apt comparison. In Bitterhall we are introduced to three central characters who tell the story as they see it, all written in first person to accentuate the individuality of the accounts.
First we get Daniel Lightfoot’s story - an introverted soul whose life is changed by the arrival of a cool and charismatic new flatmate (at least in Daniel's eyes), Tom Mew, and his intriguing girlfriend, Orla McLeod. The three become inextricably entwined as events unfold - events which need to looked at from each individual's angle to get close to the whole picture.
After Daniel we get Orla's take on events, and finally Tom Mew’s. Each narrator seems determined to assure us, or themselves, that theirs is the correct version. What becomes clear is that none of them are who the others believe them to be, which makes all three convincing yet still unreliable. The result of this are stories which combine to confuse rather than clarify, all within a structure which aids this obfuscation.
While the three leads dominate proceedings mention should be made of the supporting cast who include Daniel's landlord the reclusive 'Dr Minto', the hygiene-obsessed, hail-fellow-well-met 'Badr', the elegant and enigmatic 'Maggie', the literary allusion, or possibly illusion, 'Lennoxlove', and even 'Mrs Boobs' the cat. They are yet further examples of memorable McClory characters, and that ability to bring to life even the most incidental individuals is rare, and is at the heart of all her work.
In the fine tradition of the strand of Scottish literature where the psychological and the supernatural meet (think James Hogg and R.L. Stevenson, right up to Kirsty Logan and Jenni Fagan), we are never entirely sure who or what we can believe, in no small part because the same goes for Daniel, Orla, and Tom. The mention of Robert Burns' supernatural ballad 'Tam Lin' is apposite as tell of that tale not only strengthens the supernatural strand to Bitterhall, but also themes of love and regret. As with much of the work of those mentioned above this is a novel which rewards a second, or third, reading to try and grasp the full picture, but even then that remains just out of reach.
Bitterhall brings together the literary and the metaphysical, but it’s also an eerie and unusual thriller - one where the tension builds towards an authentically tense climax as we have come to care for all three protagonists individually and collectively. Almost without readers realising it Helen McClory has taken three distinctive and different characters and made us care for them. You might be drawn in by the writing, but you’ll stay for the stories, and what more can you ask of a novel?
*A version of the review first appeared in SNACK Magazine.