Friday, 9 January 2015

Telling your own story

Sam Marsdyke is a folk devil. Skulking around the north Yorkshire moors, he's been excluded from school for trying to rape a fellow student and now spends his time mildly harassing groups that disgust him, like cheery ramblers and wealthy newcomers. However, far from being a caricature of teenage delinquency, Sam has a subjectivity of his own that is very personal, often very funny, and most interestingly, very imaginative. This novel has been praised for its use of 'voice', and although I'm never sure what reviewers mean when they say that, I can see where they're coming from. However, for me, Sam's Yorkshire dialect was the least part of what made him a unique narrator. While dialect is used consistently in this novel, I didn't find it particularly heavy - in comparison to something like Alic Walker's The Color Purple, for example. Indeed, I think Ross Raisin strikes just the right balance. Trying to adhere too faithfully to a certain way of speaking can, I feel, be as alienating as it is illuminating, and it was interesting to read in an interview that much of Sam's most convincing dialect is made up. God's Own Country is not an insight into the psyche of rural, semi-criminal farm labourers but an insight into the way a single mind works, and it's all the stronger for that. What's most idiosyncratic about Sam's thought processes is not his occasional use of dialect but the bizarre connections that he makes. This makes this novel a difficult, but a rewarding read. There are a number of paragraphs I had to read twice because of the jumps Sam makes between subjects - in one particularly disturbing passage, when he moves from a description of a sheep giving birth to a description of the girl he currently has his eye on, without seemingly altering the 'her' he is considering - but I found this no bad thing. Such passages are so illuminating that they tell us more about Sam's character than lots of pages of easy prose. God's Own Country is strongest when Sam's empty days are its sole focus and becomes a little weaker, and more familiar, in the final third of the novel when Sam goes on the run with a local girl. I found myself wanting a different ending for the book - although the ending that Raisin has written works well. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this twisted and funny debut a lot more than I expected to.

Raisin's second novel, Waterline, is superficially more straightforward. Mick, an ageing widower who was laid off from the Clydeside dockyards and now works shifts as a driver, has touches of a Glaswegian dialect, but these are slight and occasional. Waterline is told in third rather than first person, and this allows Raisin to get further away from the character's thought processes; indeed, there are a number of interludes from the point of view of various passers-by. Mick's story also unfolds more accessibly than Sam's, as he sinks into the depths of despair after the death of his wife from mesothelioma, and finds himself running away to London to try to escape his grief. Unlike God's Own Country, which relies more on the careful construction of a single character's inner world, Waterline works because Mick's gradual decline is so believable, not because, line-by-line, the prose is exceptional. Despite the grim subject-matter, the novel is oddly compelling, and the final interlude - in which we don't know if Mick is the narrator, the homeless man sprawled on the beach, or somewhere else entirely - is a triumph. With this conclusion, the novel narrates a strong message about how we judge those who we believe to be unworthy or irresponsible - in this case, homeless men. Because the central storyline is so sparse, the impression the novel leaves is very simple, but not simplistic. Like God's Own Country, Waterline made a much deeper impression upon me than I anticipated from the blurb and subject-matter. It demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with telling an old story well.

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