The Scottish Review of Books Review: Naming the Bones
The name LOUISE WELSH only just fits on to the proof cover of her newly published novel, her fourth, so large is it writ. The title cowers beneath, down near the bottom, supplied almost like an afterthought. Yes, the author has been branded!
Her admirers will swoop, knowing what to expect. But they'll find that the familiar elements have been distilled and refined to an even purer essence of Louise Welsh-ness: gripping story, shrewd characterisation, humour, eroticism, the macabre, a spattering of gore. The narration is even better paced than previously.
This is, I suppose, a literary thriller: I mean, a thriller about literary types. The main character is Murray Watson, a lecturer in the English Department at the University of Glasgow. Ever since making a find in a second-hand book shop in his mid-teens, Watson has been intrigued by the life and mysterious early death of a poet and Uni drop-out called Archie Lunan. He takes a sabbatical to research the entity behind the photograph on that original Seventies tangerine coloured book jacket – "a Rasputin face", "a thin man with shadows for eyes". After drowning in drink among the soaks of Glasgow academia, Lunan ended his time on earth drowning in a stormy sea off the Argyll coast.
Archie Lunan represents the Scots psyche in one sense: not Jekyll and Hyde, but – as the National Library's (fictional) head book finder explains – he had "two sides to him, the Glaswegian who wasn't going to take any shit and the mystical islander". ("Neither of them", the book finder warns, "was a perfect fit".) Extra-curricular Departmental duties dispensed with (coitus with the professor's nubile wife on top of a desk, not interrupted but unfortunately spied upon by a stranger at the door), Watson goes off to garner what information he can from Lunan's papers. Those documents aren't very revealing, however. Watson is in two minds himself: should he even continue? The sex business is preying on his mind too – it will have ramifications much later on. Might it be that Lunan "was probably as big an arsehole as [the book finder] was implying"? He has to distinguish between the man and his creation, Moontide, one of the most remarkable and most neglected collections of poetry ever to come out of this country, we're told.
Armed with a Moleskine notebook, Watson investigates. Trawling a largely rain-sodden God-damned Scotland, he stumbles upon some true horrors – jealous fellow West End "pish-poets", crazed muses, existentialist-junkies, black arts fiends, plus all manner of murky goings-on in the bothies and abandoned limekilns of an island – Lismore – which smiles for the camera on the tourist websites (take a look) but sounds a truly hellish place in this book. Perhaps only Oban fares worse, in a hilarious guide to its delights – "armpit of the universe", indeed.
This also proves a journey of self discovery for the scholar. Admitting to a predisposition to misery, ever since early childhood, he also has to work out his own relationship with his painter brother Jack (cue an enjoyable satire of the Edinburgh art scene) and – ever present on a video installation in the Fruitmarket Gallery – the towering shade of his father, who died in a care home being cared for others and not by his sons. Watson glimpses alternative lives he might have had (a very Scottish trait too). But it's Lunan's troubled history which possesses his researcher, claiming him. Watson feels he's changing, in ways he hadn't foreseen; if he could, he surely wouldn't have continued. Also changing is Watson's notion of what Archie Lunan represented – even befuddled by drink and wracked by drugs, Lunan surely blossomed into innocence. Lunan for all his excesses, as even his chief rival in the poetry stakes finally admits, had no edge to him, no sense of suspicion. Lunan trusting nature proved fatal to him.
A literary opus because of its subject matter, but there are no hey-look-at-me histrionics from our author. Just some spot-on droll asides: startled sheep "like fat ladies running downhill in high heels", a gossip magazine's "photographs of celebrities shopping on sunlit streets, large black shades and pained expressions". Welsh is too intent on telling her story, handling the different strands with the deft assurance of someone who might be writing her fourteenth rather than her fourth book. It takes great confidence to insert into the accumulating grand guignol some very funny moments (best not to repeat the judgement on Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen): these moments manage to wrongfoot us and leave us unprepared for the next gothic shocker.
It was only after I had read to the end, faster and faster, fingers itching to turn the pages, that I realised here was a book focussed on a man that had been written by a woman, but so cleverly that it seemed to be Murray Watson telling his own story without anyone's assistance. That's another kind of sorcery, the Louise Welsh sort, which will capture your imagination and wall you up alive inside its 389 pages.
- Paperback - Canongate
Knee-deep in the mud of an ancient burial ground, a winter storm raging around him, and at least one person intent on his death: how did Murray Watson end up here? His quiet life in university libraries researching the lives of writers seems a world away.