Helen McClory

Birlinn, £9.99

Review by Sean Bell

It is one thing to establish a sense of place – to evoke, rather than merely describe – but far more to summon impressions of the lives which occupy that place, along with the ways one may embody and change the other.

Doing so with aplomb is the first great accomplishment of Helen McClory’s second novel Bitterhall, the chief setting of which – the shared flat in which our three unreliable narrators move in and out of each other’s personal orbits – quickly becomes a self-contained, claustrophobic demi-monde, almost as key to the story as the mysterious 19th-century diary which motivates so much of the plot. For a novel that is perfectly willing to indulge itself with establishing mood, it also does much with astonishing brevity. When one of the protagonists speaks of the “eternal non-home of my generation: the rental house where I and my two housemates have our various lives”, many will feel a pang of recognition, even if the wider setting appears to be an alternate Scotland slightly adjacent to our own reality.

Just as recognisable are the characters who occupy this environment – the desires they do or do not act upon, the wry, broken humour with which they face their various lives, the desperation they resort to when the humour runs out, and the gulfs that can exist even amongst those so close to one another. Thankfully, Bitterhall avoids the common pitfalls of such introspection, and concerns itself far more with the way we see each other, rather than the navel-gazing ways we see ourselves.

Each of the three voices is immediate and vividly distinct – how many writers could not only enjoin the reader the “see John Berger”, but make this glancing reference an illuminating character beat? – yet they must be, in order for the conceit of the novel to work. McClory, a past winner of the Saltire First Book of the Year Award, has acknowledged the influence of Akira Kurosawa, whose Rashomon illustrated the often contradictory nature of alternating viewpoints, yet manages to employ that much-used device without ever undercutting the honesty of her characters’ perspectives.

A more obvious influence is McClory’s own previous work, which she draws from rewardingly; her talent as an author of micro-fiction – as seen in her acclaimed experimental collection The Goldblum Variations – carries over surprisingly well to the arena of the novel. The snatched, impressionistic chapters can switch between personal reflection and prose poetry – an elegant style which only gains in effectiveness as the haunted, gothic undercurrent of the novel becomes more apparent. “Everyone is drenched in ghosts,” McClory writes, before setting out to prove it.

The diary which has such an impact upon the trio of protagonists is, in truth, something of a MacGuffin, a means to an end that raises more questions than it answers. The worst one can say about Bitterhall is that one may not be particularly concerned about resolving these mysteries by the book’s conclusion. That is no bad thing, and neither is Bitterhall’s self-consciousness as a story being told, expertly balancing the untrustworthy subjectivity of its telling with the many sincere ways it draws the reader in. As one of the narrators warns, “there is a centre to the whole thing. It’s up to you to mark it”.

No-one would mistake the fragmented narrative of Bitterhall for a locomotive of fiction; events do not escalate and tension rarely builds until the very end. That may be by design – the most realistic part of this very self-conscious fiction about the nature of writing, and what it can do to those who encounter it. Life does not abide by novelistic structure – rather, “life scatters everywhere”. Bitterhall documents that truth, marrying it with art in the process, and is a worthy endeavour for doing so.