It’s 1985 in central Scotland in this pre-coming of age story by debut novelist, Helen Mackinven. And it’s an impressive debut.
A natural storyteller, Mackinven presents an, at times, claustrophobic (in a good way), sharply observed story of growing-up, of the early teenage years of Angela and Lorraine, of the ups and downs of their intense friendship, of moodiness, menstruation and the mysteries of boys. All the 1980s stuff is there, ra-ra skirts, Frankie goes to Hollywood and Cagney and Lacey on the telly.
There’s a lot that’s colloquial and local in this tale, but the themes are universal in terms of both place and era. The characters at times aren’t particularly likeable, but that’s because they’re human failings are very much on show. And the author skilfully uses their flawed humanity to make them interesting and real. It’s to the author’s credit that the reader comes to care very much about Angela and Lorraine.
How the girls think of themselves is somewhat shocking to twenty-first century sensibilities. Yes, of course they’re naive––at that age who isn’t? But they have a low level of expectations for themselves as teenage girls and as women in the future. That’s how it still was just thirty years ago, in spite of women’s lib and the swinging sixties. This is Thatcher’s Scotland––a time of survival of the fittest, a time of hopelessness for ordinary people, a step back into darker ages. There’s no political correctness, no inclusiveness. There’s sexism and sectarianism. And Mackinven portrays it all so well. The universality is there in that, in some ways, all these issues are still there, albeit in sometimes slightly different contexts, in 2015 Britain.
There’s some shocking stuff too including a rape, but all told with a dispassionate matter-of-factness that makes it all the more shocking.
But it’s the characters more than anything that make this such a gripping and rewarding read. All of them are so well drawn–– from Gran to Bimbo the poodle.
It’s an unsettling tale of a past time, it’s bleak and certainly not nostalgic, but there’s also love and more than a bit of hope. Great stuff.
Type of read: Good for a book group––there’s even pre-prepared questions at the back of the book. Read it in a couple of sittings, when you’ve the couch to yourself, and Blondie playing in the background.
Talk of the Toun is published by Thunderpoint and is available in paperback and as an e-book.