Together in Spirit

An online reading group ('TIS a reading group!) to bring together friends, and friends of friends, who aren't able to be in a conventional reading group due to constraints of time or geography.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sunset song

This book is intensely lyrical in its depiction of the crofting life, but at the same time pulls no punches about the cruelty, hardship and insularity of times ( for example, the burning to death of the cattle; John Guthrie’s violence and abuse; the ignorant taunting of Long Rob when he refuses to buy into the xenophobia of the times.) I think these two aspects come together most effectively and affectingly in the death of Ewan. He is shot for desertion and the explanation he gives to Chae is ‘It was the wind that came with the sun, I minded Blawearie, I seemed to waken up smelling that smell’ p 237. He leaves the trench to get back to Blawearie and Chris, and is arrested and shot. I thought this by far the best part of the book – not just because of this structural integrity, but because it was so moving, so honest and so awful. It made me cry.

This was a book that took me a long time to get in to and I do think there are problems with it. I found the Prelude unreadable, partly because of this new-to-me language, partly because I didn’t know why I was reading it and because it was so bitty. So I gave that up half way through. Then, in the main part of the book I couldn’t recall the minor characters at all – and found that I should have read the Prelude. Did this happen to anyone else? I think this is poor writing structure – you need to know who characters are when they appear, not half a book earlier.

I am not convinced by Gibbon’s explanations for the use of so many Scots words. I did get used to them, and didn’t usually bother to look them up, but I think if he is going to use ‘the great English tongue’ he should do so, and if he thinks the book can be written in Scots (which he implies has disappeared from literary usage) he should do so and accept that his royalties will be much reduced.

And then there’s Chris’ education. Much is made of this in the early part of the book so to drop it totally when her father dies and she marries leaves one wondering why. It does serve the function of giving the ogre John Guthrie his redeeming feature (though I found it unbelievable): he supports Chris in her schooling and ambitions. This is number one of a trilogy, so I presume we return to this later. Well, I don’t think I will – it was worth reading and some of it was a joy to read, but I’m not sure I need to read more.