And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson

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And The Land Lay Still by James Robertson

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Louise Laurie
Reviewed by Louise Laurie
Summary: This detailed mix of fact and fiction covers fifty years of Scotland in the latter half of the 20th century. Robertson takes in politics, history, the economy, social life and society: basically a rich tapestry of Scottish life at the time.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 688 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241143568

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The novel starts ... at the end. We see the fictional character, photographer Mike Pendreich collating many, many photographs which his late father took with his trusty camera. His father is generally acknowledged as the better of the two at the craft; he simply had the knack. And what his son is now in charge of are black and white photographs charting a social history at that time. And we all know that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Mike is now middle-aged and as he looks at all these photographs he sees his own childhood. And the reader is plunged into the austerity of post-war Scotland. Add in factors such as the awful weather, the plain food and locals who are usually more than happy to call a spade a bloody shovel and it's all pretty drab (or dreich as Robertson would probably say) and a bit depressing.

Robertson deftly creates numerous deep-thinking, intelligent and articulate characters who ask the questions we, the reader, would no doubt ask. And what a heady mix we have to choose from. It's all here in glorious and detailed description. Emigration, immigration, poverty, racism, bloody-mindedness, the Scottish psyche and politics, politics, politics.

I'd have to say at the outset that in order to really enjoy this book, an interest in all things Scottish would help. And as I keep abreast of the political scene (both throughout the UK and Scotland) I was skim reading quite a few dense paragraphs and even whole pages. I felt that I wasn't being told anything new here, in the non-fiction parts of the book. In fact, I found the book to be neatly divided into two: the fictional narrative and factual events - all of which are documented elsewhere. So, for me, it was the fiction part which grabbed my attention. It does take a little time to get into the book, get a feel for the various characters. Robertson dips in and out of their lives all the time but there is a link between many of them. Many of the characters are multi-generational and a good number of them speak in the local east coast (Edinburgh) dialect. This adds to the richness of the fictional story. And throughout the births, deaths and marriages the Scottish psyche looms. It's rather negative in a life's-a-bitch-but-we-may-as-well-get-on-with-it manner. A cheery read this is not.

The novel tends to fall between two stools. It's neither fiction nor fact. Personally, I would have preferred it to have been one or the other. I didn't feel that this half-way house format was totally successful. I had the sense at times that Robertson fitted his characters around his research. This made the narrative, at times, rather wooden. Robertson gives us numerous pages of densely-collated facts in long paragraphs. Many pages have no paragraph breaks at all. I think some readers may find it a little textbook-ish, perhaps even a little dry and off-putting. Having said that, there's no doubt that Robertson has researched thoroughly - but he shares all of it with the reader.

This is a big, dense read concentrating on Scotland and its people. Best to be read - and savoured - in small doses (like the sound of the bagpipes perhaps?) but recommended nevertheless.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

If this book appeals then you might also enjoy Old Men in Love by Alasdair Gray or The White Lie by Andrea Gillies.

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