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Emily Mackie: In Search Of Solace (Sceptre)

Emily Mackie's debut novel And This Is True was nominated for the Dylan Thomas Prize and the Saltire Scottish First Book of the Year Award.

It was widely praised for being quirky, shocking and having a central conceit - a boy's romantic love for his father - that was, at once, unlikely and convincing.

Her second novel is focused on a character whose name might be Jacob Little. One day Jacob has an "epiphany" and decides to leave his girlfriend who calls herself Solace. They met in a nightclub where Jacob initially misheard her name as Soulless. Names mean everything and nothing in the story, and if they occasionally reference cliches from the self-help industry one assumes that that is deliberate. Jacob spends many years trying to find Solace again while adopting a string of different names and identities. He's a pagan, a theatre critic, a historian, archaeologist, Christian, Buddhist and alcoholic among other things. Eventually his search takes him to the Scottish Highland town where Solace was born.

Jacob gathers other characters to him as he goes. He is verging on physically repulsive - bad teeth, bad skin, bad breath - yet a source of fascination to almost everyone he meets. There is his landlady Fat Sal whose abusive husband works on the oil rigs, a little girl called Lizzy who renames herself Max and a teenager called Lucy. Lucy is so taken with Jacob that she transforms her appearance to resemble Solace's. Throughout it, Solace and Jacob are themselves being shadowed by their old landlord Mr Burton, a clockmaker, who is keeping a terrible secret.

The narration is directive and we follow Jacob and the others by way of a Dear Reader device which insists that we look here or there, examine this or that or remember seemingly minor characters or incidents that happened earlier. The reader is companion and co-conspirator while the story shifts back and forward in time, uses instant rewind to look at things again, and sometimes rearranges itself into scenes from a play or images on an artist's canvas.

Jacob's epiphany turns out to be the need to answer the question "Who am I?". Before long he discovers that the only identity he has is the one that others assign to him, a revelation he repeats ad nauseam. He is prone to pretentious speeches with some help from the narrator who laces the story with references to Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Camus. Jacob is interested in how time works and wishes he could fly or be invisible. Sadly, the novel is fatally undermined by the growing realisation that no matter how you dress him up or what name you give him, Jacob is an insufferable bore.

Given his centrality to the story, the absence of anything interesting about Jacob spreads through it like a contagion. The fact that women are not content to love him but want to "be him" is not just unlikely but inexplicable. And as the Dear Reader directives become more insistent, the more inclined one is to resist them as they invariably lead back to the main character.

Mackie puts a lot of narrative inventiveness at the service of a central character who does not deserve it while sacrificing potentially interesting side stories to Jacob's relentless central one. The child Lizzy who becomes Max, for instance, has a gender identity issue which feels much more important than Jacob's "'Who am I?" quest but gets a lot less attention.

It comes as little surprise that Jacob is planning a novel himself. It would "f*** conflict, f*** climax, f*** resolution" and be about "how life really is". Fortunately it is never fully realized though he does find another unlikely route to immortality. Some elements of In Search Of Solace suggest that Mackie may have been tempted by her own character's prescription for a "real" novel but, if so, it is resisted. In the end, she gamely pulls together all the threads of the story in a fairly standard way even if YouTube is required to record some of it. It is a resolution of sorts for Jacob but unfortunately this Dear Reader lost interest in him some time ago.

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