Tuesday 2 June 2009

The Return of John Macnab and Romanno Bridge

Andrew Greig's novel was the reading group's book for June. I knew that this was a modern day follow-up or reworking of a John Buchan novel entitled simply John Macnab. However not having read the original, I had no idea what to expect. The first surprise is that there is no John Macnab as such. Instead we have three middle aged friends – Neil, Murray and Alasdair - who have decided to embark on a series of daring escapades in the Highlands of Scotland. The escapades take the form of a wager which involves relieving three Highland estates of a salmon or a brace of grouse or a deer. The challenge is published in the Scotsman and is the same challenge as in John Buchan's novel. In order to hide their real identities the three conspirators use the name John Macnab as a sort of nom de plume.

The story then develops much like an old fashioned rip-roaring adventure yarn, with lots of daring-do, obstacles to overcome and cunning and potentially violent adversaries to outwit. There is a distinct feel of Enid Blyton's Famous Five about the novel, though with the added ingredients of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll with copious amounts of booze thrown in for good measure. The three adventurers all have a past which gradually emerges as the tale develops. This allows Greig to present his characters as real people and not merely stock figures. In their quest they are soon joined by the beautiful and feisty Kirsty, who has her own past demons to confront. Their adversaries are also presented as interesting people in their own right, especially the local policeman, Jim MacIver and the somewhat mysterious Ellen Stobo, sent up from London to find out what is really going on. As two of the estates are foreign owned and the third is HM's very own Balmoral there is plenty of scope for discussion about privilege, land ownership and access, not to mention adding a bit of colour and mystery to the tale.

This is a cracking good tale and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Fast paced and written with a light touch you are kept in suspense right up to the last page. Part of this suspense is provided by the uncertainty over the identity of the narrator. It is never clear, until the very end, just who has written the tale. The very first sentence – “Begin the afternoon in August when an old blue Ford Escort quietly enters a small Highland town.” - creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and mystery. Every so often the narrator includes references to the future, one of them about what some minor character will do seventy years on, when even the narrator will be dead. This air of uncertainty as to the status of the tale and its narrator is continued right to the end. The last chapter begins by repeating a line uttered by one of the characters earlier in the tale: “Everything I have told you is true. You must decide whether to believe that or not.”

Romanno Bridge

This is Andrew Greig's follow-up book to The Return of John Macnab. And another cracking good adventure yarn it is too. Featuring the same cast from John Macnab with a few newcomers thrown in for good measure. Two major differences though, one relatively minor – the main focus is Kirsty – it appears to be her story. The other really significant difference is that this book is much darker and violent with an ever rising count of murders to rival Taggart.

The possibility of a follow-up is hinted at in the last chapter of John Macnab, especially the last few pages, when Neil meets up with Kirsty again. Interestingly the new book does not begin with this. Instead the first third of the book is all about Kirsty and her new life in Dumfries as she starts afresh after the excitement of John Macnab's adventures. This is when she makes the acquaintance of Billy Mackie, a retired stonemason who tells her a strange tale about the Stone of Destiny. Hooked, she starts to make enquiries and soon the new adventure begins. For Romanno Bridge is about the true tale surrounding the mystery of the Stone of Destiny, or should that be the Stones of Destiny? Quite a few stones appear in this tale as well as rings with hidden messages.

Kirsty does meet up with Neil again and the account is pretty much the same as in the ending of John Macnab, with the key difference that this time it is told in the third person, by the unknown narrator. Once again there is a bit of a mystery as to who this narrator is. By then we have met most of the new characters including Leo, the youngish Kiwi working in the Samye Ling Buddhist monastery and most spectacularly, Mr Adamson, the cold blooded and very violent villain of the piece. The other key newcomer – Inga Johanssen from Norway - has been mentioned but does not appear until later.

As with John Macnab this is an excellent adventure tale, well written and fast paced. Greig has a lovely way with words, which enlivens the book and takes it beyond mere adventure. Here is an example of a cheeky use of metaphor. Leo the Kiwi is thinking about the challenges of life:- “For sure it is a threatening and uncertain world. Don't complain, mate – do something or get used to it: his dad's mantra. He didn't do metaphors, the old fella. He didn't beat about the bush.”

In the main Romanno Bridge features much of the same mix as before – a bit more sex and drugs and still quite a lot of booze. There is more busking than Rock 'n Roll this time. What makes it very different though is that this time the world is a much darker place. Real suffering occurs and a lot of people die, usually very unpleasantly. This may have something to do with the fact that though the action starts immediately after the end of John Macnab, Romanno Bridge wasn't written until 2008 and the darker ambience probably reflects the changes that have taken place in the world over the previous 12 years.

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