My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Writing in ‘dialect’
This book is a testament to the premise that novel writers do not need always to write in standard English but may write the entire novel in ‘dialect’ – in this case, the Scots language.
Donovan’s three first person narrators both speak and narrate in Scots, rendered predominantly in what appear to be truncated or adapted English words. It is not what we would think of as a foreign language because, for me at least, there is no question of not understanding what they are saying, or needing to consult a dictionary. Therefore I still use the word ‘dialect’, albeit in inverted commas, to protect the integrity of Scots as a distinct (and historically somewhat suppressed) language.
There is no way Buddha Da would have been anywhere near as evocative had it not been written in Scots. It brings the characters to life in your head, in the way an oral narrator or actor might do. To sprinkle in a few ‘less is more’ indicators of the Glasgow setting and Scottish characters just wouldn’t have done it. That seems to me to be an aloof, ‘standing back’ position to write from, whereas these first person viewpoint characters were there, on the ground, immersed, in both location and culture.
Of general note, from a craft perspective:
Firstly the first person narration might have allowed the immersion in ‘dialect’ that a third person narration would not. I’m not going so far as to say it wouldn’t, but I would at least want to explore and question whether dialect should only appear in dialogue.
The ‘marked’ v ‘unmarked’ state
Secondly, Scotland and Glasgow are ‘marked’ by the author; it matters that they are Scottish and in Scotland – as distinct from, say, Scottish author Janice Galloway‘s The Trick Is to Keep Breathing where the character’s state of mind predominates.
However, as I type this, I get a horrible feeling of my Englishness seeping out – and in fact I cannot really see that there is a valid argument against a Scottish writer writing in Scots, irrespective of subject matter. As did Robert Burns – or are poets allowed to do something novelists are not?
Character and structure
Apart from my preoccupation with Scottish language, it is also a very clever and insightful story, character and structure-wise. So little happens. No huge drama, no sword fights or earthquakes or shoot-outs or car chases; just the normal events of everyday life: the break-up of a marriage, death of an elderly relative, pregnancy. But they are set up so that all these things matter. Donovan creates the characters so well, so equally, you really can see each of their points of view – in a heart-rending, empathetic way, not just intellectually. And by the time each event occurs, you know acutely the significance to each of the characters. I would so love to talk to Anne Donovan about her process.