Monday 16 March 2009
In Another Light and The gangster we are all looking for
I read these two books as a follow up to The Harmony Silk Factory. In Another Light is by Scottish writer Andrew Greig and a very good book it is too.. There are two stories here, which finally, after many twists and turns come together. One of stories is set in Malaya in 1930, which explains the follow up. The other and the main story is set in 2001 mainly in Orkney. This is about Eddie Mackay and his attempt to build a new life for himself after recovering from a near fatal brain trauma. This story is told in the first person and while the main focus is on his new life in Orkney and the people he meets there, a subsidiary theme emerges which grows in focus and importance as the novel develops. This is Eddie's quest to discover the truth about his father and an alleged affair he, Sandy Mackay was supposed to have had in Malaya in 1930. The affair is raised almost in an off-hand manner by his elderly mother, but Eddie is intrigued and wants to find out more about his father whom he feels he never really knew and who died many years previously.
The Malaya story is told in the third person as a straightforward narrative and the two stories alternate every three or four pages. So we, the readers, are always at least one step ahead of Eddie as he tries to recreate his father's life in Penang. This part of the novel is sympathetically told and offers us a vivid picture of life in Malaya in 1930. It has a claustrophobic edge to it as the focus is all on Sandy Mackay and his blossoming love affair and its sudden end. The other characters are all interesting and fascinating in their own right, especially the enigmatic Marsden and the two Simpson sisters, Ann and Adele.
Eddie Mackay's own account of his new life is told in a sharply self-deprecating style. Through his encounters with the motley crew of fellow inhabitants in Stromness, and his quest into the past of his father, Eddie gradually learns more about himself and what he wants to be. To begin with this part of the novel focuses more on Eddie's relationships with his new circle of friends and acquaintances in Stromness. In particular his growing attachment to Mica, who like Eddie, is also starting afresh. Back on Orkney to care for her dying father, Mica has her own issues to resolve. Their far from harmonious relationship and its breakdown forms the kernel of Eddie's development, though as the novel progresses the quest into his father's past takes on an ever more important role. And it is this quest which brings the various strands together in a surprising and unexpected finale. As the title suggests, not only Eddie, but anything and anyone can be seen in another light.
This, despite its part setting in Malaya is a very Scottish novel. The main characters are constantly challenging us to reconsider what it is to be Scottish. The traditional view of Scotland as a dour and depressing place is provided by the elder Mackay, who leaves Scotland in part to escape the “endless dreichness of skies and mind”. And to him “Scotland's a place where everyone explains what is not possible, that it'll all end in tears, we're here to make the best of a bad job then die, and get a good rest rest till we're woken up to be informed we're damned.” Ouch! Pass the whisky please. On the other hand he does return and settles to a good life and his son portrays a very vibrant and full life in Orkney. Even Scotland can be seen in another light.
The gangster we are all looking for, is the first novel by American based Vietnamese writer, Le Thi Diem Thuy. This is another book that is not what it seems. For a start it has nothing to do with gangsters. It is rather an account of a young Vietnamese girl growing up in America. One of the boat people who survived the perils and made it to the USA with her father. Her mother failed to make it, though she did join them later. Her brother did not and died in Vietnam. This is not a straightforward story. There is little narrative in it, more a series of memories, all bitty and enigmatic. It is also full of pain. Not just the young girl's, but her father's and mother's as they seek and mostly fail to make sense of their past and their present in America. Most of the book is written in the voice of the pre-teen young girl and the writing does have a naïve, dream like simplicity to it. This is a very short novel, more a novella, only 150 pages long. It is not however an easy or comfortable read. I didn't feel any real sense of development, only pain, suffering and loss.