THIS is a big book in every sense. Its 320 pages range over the straths and hills of the Cairngorm National Park and the complex relationships and troubles of an extended family over 60 years. It also packs a considerable spiritual punch.
Initially, at least, the short chapters given to different people to narrate can make it difficult to establish who is talking. There is a considerable cast of characters, most of whom are in some way related. It might have been helpful had the author provided a family tree at the end rather than a two-and-a-half page list of all the authorities whom she has consulted on everything from ecological regeneration to Bolivian Spanish.
The novel begins and ends with the disappearance and presumed death of Colvin Munro, a Highland shepherd who walks out of his cottage in the village of Briachan early one morning, never to return. Punctuating the narrative are 12 “signs” describing possessions of his that are found at various remote locations in the Cairngorm mountains.
What has happened to Colvin is unclear. What we know, though, is that his livelihood was threatened by the new owners of the Highland estate on which he worked. They have no use for sheep, and want to make it an entirely sporting estate. Debates over Highland land use feature prominently, and the pros and cons of community buy-out, forestry, and sporting estates are put forward by several of the main characters.
This reflects a strong concern of the author, Merryn Glover. She was born in Kathmandu and brought up in Nepal, India, and Pakistan, where her Anglican Australian parents worked as Wycliffe Bible translators. She now lives in the upper Spey Valley, which provides the setting for this novel.
In her own words: “I am fascinated by the kinds of people who call this area home, and what that means to them. It’s a part of Scotland that harbours an incredibly wide range of people, from billionaire landowners to off-grid hermits, long-standing locals to incomers, the field sporting fraternity to passionate ecologists –— sometimes all within one family.
“It is also an exceptionally significant and vulnerable natural landscape in critical need of protection; so there are challenging questions about how people and environment can thrive together here. Ultimately, Scotland is grappling with big issues around land reform — ownership, use, and rights — and this novel is set firmly within that debate.”
Landscape does loom large in the book, but, ultimately, this is a novel about people, and specifically about fractured lives and family relationships. The characters are strongly drawn — few more so than Colvin’s mother, Agnes, a wild but deeply religious figure who comes of a travelling family, and his father, Gideon, who is badly wounded and traumatised in the Second World War, and comes back to his shepherding as a withdrawn alcoholic.
© Stewart GrantThe author, Merryn Glover
Colvin somewhat improbably marries an exotic and very attractive Bolivian girl, Liana, and they have two children: Tess, a folk musician, and Alex, a shy, moody, and withdrawn figure whose great passion in life is bird-watching.
The two central characters in the story are Colvin’s brother, Sorley, and his foster-sister, Mo. Sorley is the one member of the family who escapes from the strath, going to university and becoming a hedge-fund manager in London. He wrecks his health and his sanity with cocaine, alcohol, and affairs, and, after the financial crash, comes back home to Briachan penniless.
Mo is the strongest and most interesting figure in the book, and has more to say than any other character. Born with a cleft palate, and abandoned as a baby, she has a strange relationship with Sorley, which is left somewhat ambiguous. Having converted to Christianity, she is ordained in the Church of Scotland, and finds herself becoming minister of Briachan, the village in which she had grown up. Interesting passages in the book explore her uneasy relationship with the institutional Church of Scotland, of which the author clearly has a considerable knowledge.
Mo ends up leaving parish ministry and acquiring the village inn, which is bequeathed to her by an anonymous donor. She runs it almost as a kind of para-church, providing spiritual succour and support to the broken and needy. Many of the chapters that she narrates are peppered with quotations from the Bible, Celtic prayers, and blessings from the Carmina Gadelica and other explicitly Christian references, and have titles such as “Annunciation”, “Easter Lamb”, and “Man of Sorrows”.
There is a very strong spiritual strain running through the book, suggesting a strong personal faith on the part of the author and giving it a powerful redemptive theme.
The Revd Professor Ian Bradley reviews Temple and Tartan by Jock Stein here.
Of Stone and Sky by Merryn Glover is published by Birlinn at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-84697-608-7.
Listen to Ian Bradley in conversation with the author Merryn Glover in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature.
OF STONE AND SKY— SOME QUESTIONS
- Mo says: “The Church is another character in our tale, though she has, over the centuries, descended from dramatic heroine to sleeping with the enemy to relegation in the dusty wings with an occasional walk-on part.” How is this theme worked out in the book?
- What do you make of the 12 “Signs” relating to Colvin Munro’s disappearance that are scattered throughout the book? Do you find them effective?
- “Who am I to preach and pastor? What do I know? But the call never left me, the Presence. Not so much a booming great voice or a pillar or fire, but more like a stray bird that turned up and wouldn’t leave.” How far can you relate to Mo’s call to the ministry and what it says about vocation?
- “Problem is, these environmental organisations are more interested in trees and animals than people.” Having read the novel, whose side are you inclined to be on in the debate between environmentalists and locals which is one of its themes? Did the treatment of this issue make you change your views at all?
- The chapter in which Liana finds Colvin kneeling and weeping beside a pen of orphaned and rejected lambs is entitled “Man of Sorrows”. Do you think that this biblical reference is deliberate, and do you find a suffering servant, or Christlike quality in his character?
- What do you make of Sorley’s vision of Colvin at the very end of the book, when he sees him walking to the east with a crook in his hand, joined by “a figure with streaming white hair” and “then another shining”?
IN OUR next Book Club page, on 2 June, we will print extra information about our next book, My Father’s House by Joseph O’Connor. It is published by Harvill Secker at £20 (£18); 978-1-78730-082-8.
My Father’s House is a historical thriller set in Rome in 1943, when the city was under Nazi occupation. The story follows the journey of a group of Jews, diplomats, and escaped Allied prisoners who try to flee Italy. They take refuge in the Vatican City, and their escape is facilitated under the guise of a choir, by a courageous Irish priest. Tension builds as the Gestapo begin to suspect the priest’s secret operation. The novel is based on a true story, and is a retelling of the workings of the Rome Escape Line, covering the heroic work of Mgr Hugh O’Flaherty.
Joseph O’Connor is a novelist, screenwriter, playwright, and broadcaster. As an author, he is best known for his historical novel Star of the Sea, an international bestseller. His fiction has been translated into 40 languages. Born and raised in Dublin, he worked during the summer months of his college years at the Sunday Tribune and Magill magazine, where he met and was influenced by the Irish writers Colm Tóibín and Fintan O’Toole. The author is the eldest of five children. His sister is the singer and songwriter Sinéad O’Connor.
BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS
July: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan
August: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles