The Other Side of Stone

Linda Cracknell

Taproot Press, £14.99

Review by Nick Major

Once upon a time, farmers could pay their rent with the profits from wool sales. Nowadays, unless you own a herd of top-quality merino sheep, wool and profit are rarely heard in the same sentence. Shearing is done solely for animal welfare reasons. The collapse of the wool industry didn’t just hit farmers. In The Other Side of Stone, one of Linda Cracknell’s characters, George, locks himself inside a Perthshire woollen mill. It is 1990 and the mill has closed down. He is determined to finish a last length of Glen Alder Tweed. But he knows there is something doomed about his enterprise. "Worn threads of memory tugged at him, the frayed ends of rumours from early in the century that reminded him he wouldn’t be the Mill’s first sacrifice."

In Cracknell’s short, fractured novel, no-one seems to be having much fun. This is no nostalgic paean to a lost industry. The book is split into different stories, each focusing on an individual implicated in the mill’s lifespan. One of the recurring characters is a raging suffragette whose husband becomes foreman in the 1910s. As a result, the two grow apart. She is dependent on his income, unable to fulfil her own dreams, wedded instead to his kitchen sink.

Perth has a history of suffragism. Arabella Scott was subjected to what amounted to torture from the British state while on hunger strike in Perth Prison. It’s a story recounted in Ajay Close’s novel A Petrol Scented Spring: a more detailed account of the Scottish suffragettes compared with the rather tired polemic here.

The best story concerns James Knight: a descendent of the original mill owner who oversees the factory’s final days. He moves to Zanzibar as an advisor to a cotton mill, but is quietly pushed out of office. He is forced to return to his parents, whom he thinks will be receiving a failure back into their house. It’s a compelling portrait of a man whose allegiances to family and tradition are prey to harsh realities. In another story, set in 2006, a man turns the abandoned mill building into a block of flats, only for his project to fail because of structural problems and mysterious forces to which only the reader is privy.

These mysterious forces are present from the beginning. In the first story, a stonemason working on the construction of the mill in 1831 carves a glaistig – in mythology, a malign green maiden – into the wall. She is a kind of protector of nature; the antithesis of industrialisation. Her presence seems to predetermine the bad juju that dogs the people of the mill. Her curse, if that’s what it is, is only lifted in the final story, with the restoration of nature.

Despite this pagan witchery, which does provide some cohesion, many of the stories feel unfinished; in need of a little fleshing out. There is nothing wrong with some loose ends in fiction, but this is a little too loose, and too short. At least it’s a novel problem: most fiction is too long. Cracknell’s approach of shoring up different voices against one another is a good narrational tactic, but to have a third person narrator sometimes pop up creates a formal confusion: who exactly is telling this story?

Cracknell excels in her descriptions of place. She has past form in this regard, particularly in her travel book Doubling Back. She can conjure up a scene with precision and acuity. Here is James, imagining his Perthshire home: "one of those dense still days when the tops of trees are bitten off by cloud, and the sheep, stone walls and sky reflect only shades of white". It is her keen, illuminating eye which lights up and saves this, in the end, underwhelming novel.