No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Sunday, October 16, 2011

2011/61: The Flood -- Ian Rankin

Why would he sit there? To experience, and so that afterwards he could curse his maker for creating the incident. he believed in God now, but it was a malevolent thing and he would speak of it with a small, vehement 'g'. He believed in god. He believed in the cruelty and the inevitability of suffering. And he believed that he was doomed. As if to reassure him, thunderclouds gathered above the Firth of Forth ... He knew that it was all because of him. (p.221-2)
Rankin's first novel, published when he was a 25-year-old student, is not a crime novel but an attempt to mythologise his hometown, a dark fairytale of rumoured witchcraft, uncertain parentage and prejudice.

Mary Miller, age ten, is pushed into the 'hot burn' (a steaming outflow of chemical run-off from the local coal mine) by Matty Duncan and his mates. She survives, but her hair turns white overnight. Soon afterwards Matty Duncan dies in an explosion at the mine, and the whispers of 'witch' begin.

By fifteen, Mary is something of an outcast. Then she compounds the problem by falling pregnant and refusing to reveal the father's identity. Her beloved brother Tom emigrates ('hastily', say the whisperers) to Canada. Walking home drunk one night, her father is struck and killed ('suicide') by a car.

Fast forward to the mid-Eighties. Sandy, Mary's son, is fifteen, and thinks of himself as the man of the house. He's accustomed to his mother's strange ways (talking to her mother and father at their graves, attending church despite the stares and whispers, dating Sandy's English teacher) and is making a place for himself in the community. Then he falls in love with Rian, a gypsy girl, whose brother Robbie may or may not have rather too much influence over her. His mother's sure to approve: after all, she knows what it's like to be an outsider, like Rian ...

I didn't find this a very satisfactory read. It's very much a young man's book: the older characters, and the women, seem one-dimensional. Sandy acts, thinks and exists in a teenaged maelstrom of melodrama. (More than once his choices are explicitly influenced by 'Hollywood films'.) Perhaps the most vivid depiction is that of the town itself: Carsden is small, close-knit (apart from those it shuns) and very much a victim of the changing economic climate. Carsden, of course, not being an actual person, doesn't get any closure or resolution: but then, neither do Sandy or Mary or Rian.

I'm not very familiar with Rankin's later, better-known work, but I get the impression that The Flood is not typical.

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