Shortlisted for the 2022 Walter Scott Prize
News of The Dead is the most intellectually ambitious of the 4 2022 WSP shortlistees in time span, structure and theme. It’s going to be a challenge to give it its due in a short time-restricted review, but, (deep breath) here we go.
Time span: 13 or 14 centuries from some time in the C6th or 7th century until the start of lockdown in 2020.
Structure: 3 narratives loosely-connected through literary manuscripts with additional storytelling in Scots.
Themes: Storytelling, shared experience (both positive and negative) across the centuries
Setting: A fictional glen in the North East of Scotland, Glen Connach.
Seeing as there’s only one, let’s start with the Glen. It’s located close to where the author lives, but it is imaginary. Albeit with a fully realised beauty and character of its own. Glen Connach is isolated and remote, and yet over the centuries it is visited, infiltrated, discovered by outsiders: in the C6th or C7th by the hermit, Conach, a saint in the eyes of glen folk, but not in the eyes of the church; in the early C19th by the “intellectual vagabond”, Charles Kirkliston Gibb; and mid-C20th by a post-WWII foundling.
Conach and Gibb arrive by choice, the foundling by chance. All three arrive with nothing, and it’s not certain whether they will stay permanently. They do, because the glen unexpectedly becomes their place of refuge.
The monk, Conach, arrives from Ireland, following a dispute with his elders. He sets up in a cave, where he is attended only by a young loyal follower. Many stories and miracles are attributed to him and these are recorded in The Book of Conach. Moving forward to 1809 and Charles Kirkiston Gibb, who lives on the benificence of the Scottish lairds by transcribing and translating the old Latin texts in their libraries in return for free board and lodging, decides that The Book of Conach will be his next project. He invites himself to Glen Conach to do so, the laird accepts and Kirkliston Gibb ensconces himself fully intending to milk his time all he can. His journal of his time at Glen Conach reveals him to be a most unsympathetic character, a shyster, the self-proclaimed “intellectual vagabond” I mentioned before. And yet is he really? Because an account by a third party of what happens after he finishes his translation portrays him in an altogether different light.
Onwards to the 20th century and both the Book of Conach and Gibb’s translation have been lost in a fire. All that remain are oral stories narrated in Scots by a certain Geordie Kemp on tape. A number of these are transcribed to enable a comparison of oral and written traditions. Geordie Kemp is a contemporary of the third narrator Maja, a woman in her eighties, the oldest inhabitant of the Glen in 2020, when it is about to be visited by a most unwelcome visitor, COVID-19. That will force the already isolated inhabitants of the Glen into a deeper isolation. Maja uses her time alone to record the history of “the dumb lass” for her young friend, Lachie, who now lives in the big house, and is convinced he keeps seeing a ghost. The “dumb lass” is a coal-dust covered mute, discovered hidden on the school bus just after World War II. The fact that Maja can tell her story tells you that it is her own, and yet due to the trauma she suffered there are more holes in it than in the Book of Conach or Gibb’s journal.
“I am telling it as bits and pieces of it were told to me by others and over the years my mind has filled in the gaps. It comes to this in the end – a mixture of memories and imaginings and I am not sure which is which.”, she says. Does this make Maja’s story written years after the events as unreliable as Gibb’s, written only one or two days after they happened? Conach’s story is just legend, isn’t it? Therein lies the central theme of News of The Dead: when does history become story, and vice versa?
It’s not a question I can answer on first reading, and I feel that the hidden depths of Robertson’s novel will reveal themselves fully on subsequent reads. That, along with multiple shared experiences, the resonances of disease and war through the ages, which I just don’t have time to go into at the moment, will surely stand it in good stead with the judges of this year’s Walter Scott Prize, Will News of the Dead lift my imaginary shadow Walter Scott Prize trophy though? Come back on Friday, when I shall reveal all, sometime prior to the official announcement at 7:00 pm (or thereabouts).