It’s a testament to John Burnside’s talents that, throughout most of this book, I completely forgot I was reading the work of a 62-year-old bloke raised in Cowdenbeath rather than an authentic American novelist. This is his first novel set in the USA, but he takes to the new surroundings with ease, tracing a half-submerged trail of American history that stretches back to World War II.

His narrator and central character is Kate Lambert, a college dropout with a drink problem who has been struggling to deal with the recent death of her father. She lives with her boyfriend, Laurits, a pretentious aspiring filmmaker who can’t resist letting everyone he meets see how clever he is. Laurits and Kate co-exist well enough together, but it’s obvious that there’s little in the way of a strong, lasting bond between them beyond a shared obsession with cinema, which Kate seems to have latched on to as a way of avoiding engaging with her past and present.

For one of Laurits’ projects, Kate is roped into going around houses asking people a set of questions. She encounters Jean Culver, an old lady living alone just off the beaten track, who promises to tell Kate all about her life, but only if she first goes five days without drinking. Five days later, with a clear head, Kate meets Jean for coffee and it begins.

Kate quickly realises that this aged Scheherazade needs someone to hear her stories, a listener who will carry them with her after Jean has passed on. Kate bluntly describes herself as a “vessel” at one point, but that scarcely does justice to the growing intimacy and tenderness between the two women.

And so Kate, who is as vague about her own life as Jean is as forthcoming and precise about hers, is drawn into the embrace of Jean’s reminiscences. She learns how her father, an idealistic lawyer, was gunned down in the street, a murder witnessed by her brother, Jeremy; and of how the atrocities Jeremy witnessed while fighting in Europe determined both his post-war career and his attitude towards marriage and family life.

War rears its head again in the ‘60s, when Jean’s intelligent and insightful niece becomes an anti-war activist, eventually dropping off the radar permanently, while her nephew goes to fight in Vietnam.

The tone can be monotonous, and there are periodic slumps, such as when Jean’s nephew takes the floor for a long didactic speech. But at the end what lingers is the simple tragedy of Jean’s one true love remaining beyond her reach, and the image of a family scattered to the winds.

At the heart of Ashland & Vine is the vision of a life relived and passed on as stories, with all the gaps and inconsistencies left in, and of the bond those stories forge between Jean and Kate, helping the younger woman to finally grieve and recover her “presence in the world”. Uneven, occasionally frustrating and far from perfect, it nevertheless carries a healing and redemptive charge.