Paul Dalgarno

(Polygon, £9.99)

Death is not the end. In this story, it’s just the beginning. Margaret Bryce, born 1950, dies of cancer in 2014. But instead of oblivion she finds her disembodied consciousness darting back and forth in time to observe episodes from her life, and even events that occurred after her death.

Why this is happening she hasn’t the faintest idea, but she clearly has some unresolved issues to deal with before she can truly pass on.

Author Paul Dalgarno was born and raised in Scotland, and was senior writer and features editor at this paper before moving to Australia in 2010. This is his third book, but the first to be published in the land of his birth, and it’s such a poignant, moving and deftly-written novel that one can only hope the others will be made available here soon.

Margaret makes a wry and articulate narrator, a tenacious woman who loved her life but faced its end with resigned composure.

A working-class Aberdonian raised to love books and language, she was bright and curious about the world around her, and well-spoken enough to land a job at the Aberdeen telephone exchange when she left school. We see a few snapshots of that time, but the bulk of this trawl through her back pages concerns her life after she married electrical engineer Henry and became a mother to twins, Eva and Rachel.

The Herald: The Piper Alpha disasterThe Piper Alpha disaster (Image: free)

There’s no obvious pattern to the episodes that unspool before her incorporeal eyes. She is swept from 1984 to 2014 to 1970 to 2010 and to points after her death, attending her own funeral (“tough crowd”) and watching her daughters grieve for her.

She relives Piper Alpha and Princess Diana’s death, and upon alighting in 2021 wonders why everyone has suddenly started wearing face masks. These fragmented scenes build up a picture of Margaret’s family and her place in it.

Her growing disillusionment with husband Henry, whose emotional distance and dependence on drink diminish him from strong protector to “willowy and hunched, spindly and sad”, a “stupid, stupid man who has let us down” and now shuffles between psychiatric hospital and assisted-living flat.

Her daughters, Rachel and Eva, locked in an eternal competition that eventually drives them apart, Eva moving to Spain and Rachel going to live in Melbourne to raise two sons with her wife.

Margaret most frequently finds herself returning to the period from 2012 to 2014, when she received her terminal diagnosis and her daughters tried to set aside their differences to be there for her.

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Eventually, she admits to herself what we’ve suspected all along, that “there’s something big I’m concealing”, and that this post-mortem journey is about facing up to it and finding closure before she can move on and find peace.

But the chilling prospect of a harrowing revelation awaiting her – and us – is warmed by the lightness of Dalgarno’s touch and Margaret’s bright, engaging presence, as well as her appreciation of the wonder and preciousness of life.

Her existence has been defined by love, whether she’s been nursing her baby daughters through whooping cough, enjoying the intimacy of a foot rub or simply taking a walk in the Grampians (“We pass dry stone walls, furrowed fields, and before long are surrounded by vibrant greens, a chlorophyll cacophony of branches arching over us like arms at a ceilidh”).

With an ending that forces you to reassess everything that’s come before, A Country of Eternal Light is a beautifully poignant record of a life that brought great sorrow but, nonetheless, was one well lived.