This is my top ten list of Scottish Novels from the last decade. Again this list is in no particular order, it’s difficult enough to come up with ten. There’s quite a mix including gothic thriller, the supernatural, small town affairs, urban realism and a little surrealism. What they all have in common is that they are quality and if your on the lookout for something to read all of these come with the highest recommendation:
1/ The Cutting Room by Louise Welsh. Scottish thriller writing has never been in a healthier state, but it is rare that a novelist arrives that appeals to more than fans of the genre. One such is Louise Welsh who wrote three beautifully written thrillers which were real investigations of the human condition. Her debut, The Cutting Room, was published in 2002 and it was immediately obvious that here was a hugely talented and individual writer, something which she continued to show through the rest of the decade.
2/The Accidental by Ali Smith. For what it’s worth I think Ali Smith is the best Scottish writer at work today, and her 2005 novel The Accidental is the best of the best. Smith manages to show how the unexpected can shake up apparently normal lives, and as with all her fiction there is a mild surrealism that throws the reader often without them realising it, and causing them to re-read passages. It’s the literary equivalent to catching something out of the corner of your eye, it can effect you without full comprehension, and it’s an example of the subtlety and magic of the author.
3/The Pearlfishers by Robin Jenkins. Published posthumously in 2007 after being found in a drawer by his daughter, The Pearlfishers is the final novel from one of Scotland’s greatest 20th century writers, Robin Jenkins. Like his most famous novel, The Cone Gatherers, The Pearlfishers looks at how a small communities prejudices awake when confronted by the strange or unknown. If you’ve never read Jenkins I would start with The Changeling, but honestly the man didn’t write a bad book, and The Pearlfishers proved this to be true right up to the end.
4/Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan. Andrew O’Hagan is perhaps as well known as a columnist, and his book of essays The Atlantic Ocean is also highly recommended, but in this decade he wrote two excellent novels. Admittedly there is an element of journalism in his fiction; 2003’s Celebrity for instance is unashamedly based on the tragic story of Lena Zavoroni, and Be Near Me (2006) may have its roots in real life occurrences. But most novelists will do the same, they may just be more circumspect about it. Whatever the source O’Hagan still creates characters that the reader can care about, and deals with subject matter that other writers would sensationalise, in a humane, personal and subtle way.
5/The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. There was some great supernatural and gothic fiction written in this decade, and James Robertson wrote two of the best. Both of them could, and almost did, feature on this list with 2001’s The Fanatic also being a terrific read. But just pipping it is 2007’s The Testament of Gideon Mack, a novel which is obviously influenced by the fiction of James Hogg in particular, but Robertson’s novel maintains a distinctive voice and is a very modern tale. The best page-turner of the decade. (Another of Robertson’s novels, Joseph Knight (2004), was also well received, but I’m afraid I have yet to read it).
6/Paradise by A.L. Kennedy. A writer who was at the top of her game in this decade was A.L. Kennedy. Paradise was published in 2004 and for me was when Kennedy, who has been good right from her first collection of short stories, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), moved to a different level. Her depiction of a woman and her battle with alcoholism is breathtaking as well as heartbreaking. The writing is so clever that the reader’s head is often swimming just as narrator Hannah’s world is spinning. Sensational in the best possible sense.
7/Day by A.L. Kennedy. Kennedy followed Paradise up with 2007’s Day and I to had include both novels in my top ten. The simplicity and brilliance of the central premise, where Alfred Day is made to relive his own war experience as a bomber tail-gunner when he is cast as an extra in a Prisoner of War movie, is typical Kennedy. Black humour, an incredible eye for detail and empathy for human emotion are expressed in this novel, but it is the writer’s mastery of language that is the key to all of her fiction. A.L. Kennedy is one of the best around.
8/The Worms Carry Me to Heaven by Alan Warner. Alan Warner started the decade with his weakest novel to date, The Man Who Walks (which is rumoured to be adapted for the cinema… an odd choice) but redeemed himself in 2007 with possibly his best. I really love this novel, and again Warner managed to convey the story not only through character and language, but through a sense of place. The novel is set in Spain, and although it is done subtly, the stage for the drama is perfect and supports the novel without being noticed. This ability to set his work perfectly is a feature of Warner’s fiction, and is rarer than you may think.
9/Buddha Da by Anne Donovan. Only the second debut on this list, Buddha Da (2003) was clever, accessible and moving. The form of the novel, which has three very different voices narrating the story at various times, only works because Anne makes each voice believable and individual. Her follow up Being Emily (2008) is also a great read but Buddha Da introduced a writer who had an unerring ear for language, and could show the humour and heartache of the everyday.
10/Kieron Smith, boy by James Kelman. Kelman’s latest novel (2008) is his best for years, perhaps since How Late it was, How Late in 1994. The novel manages to perform that most difficult task of realistically conveying the thoughts and voice of a child. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a less political novel than previous works, even if it is one of Kelman’s most accessible. The writer never misses his targets as he comments on class, prejudice, the education system and religion; and seeing these through the eyes of Kieron Smith make them all the more poignant and gives an extra dimension to Kelman’s message.
That’s my list, but I’d like to hear who you think is missing. I notice that these are not just great novels, but are all written by writers who I consider to be great. They all have a body of work, to a greater or lesser degree, to explore. This was not deliberate, and I’m sure I’ve missed some wonderful one off novels. Andrew Drummond’s Volapuk springs to mind. What I would really love is to be told of novels which have passed me by in the last ten years.