James Robertson is one of my favourite authors and his novel And The Land Lay Still is one of my favourite books of all time. So when my husband had a giftcard to spend at our local bookshop (the excellent The Portobello BookShop), I made the completely selfless suggestion that he might like this book! He loved it and I was waiting patiently for my turn to read it.
About the book
Deep in the mountains of north-east Scotland lies Glen Conach, a place of secrets and memories, fable and history. In particular, it holds the stories of three different eras, separated by centuries yet linked by location, by an ancient manuscript and by echoes that travel across time.
In ancient Pictland, the Christian hermit Conach contemplates God and nature, performs miracles and prepares himself for sacrifice. Long after his death, legends about him are set down by an unknown hand in the Book of Conach.
Generations later, in the early nineteenth century, self-promoting antiquarian Charles Kirkliston Gibb is drawn to the Glen, and into the big house at the heart of its fragile community.
In the present day, young Lachie whispers to Maja of a ghost he thinks he has seen. Reflecting on her long life, Maja believes him, for she is haunted by ghosts of her own.
News of the Dead is a captivating exploration of refuge, retreat and the reception of strangers. It measures the space between the stories people tell of themselves – what they forget and what they invent – and the stories through which they may, or may not, be remembered.
News of the Dead is another brilliant book from James Robertson. It reminded me in style of The Testament of Gideon Mack with the story presented in different ways by different narrators, all telling their own truths. There are letters, memoirs, journals, academic records, archival transcriptions, simple narration and the translation of The Book of Conach.
“A good story… had to have some element of truth in it, even if he had made it up or stolen it. If it did not have that truth, even if it was the best tale of them all, it would fail.”
This book looks at the ways stories are passed on through generations, how they connect the past and present, how they change and evolve with each retelling. And yet there is still that principle of truth which validates them. James Robertson weaves a compelling story with legends, beliefs and traditions from three different time periods. There was an element of mystery as I wondered what connected the three parts of the story, with Maja’s story from the contemporary strand being particularly intriguing.
This is also a book with a strong sense of place, in this case Glen Conach. Finding your place to belong is a key theme. As Maja says “everyone has a place, a real place or a memory of a place, or a dream of a place.” The use of dialect firmly rooted this book in the Scottish glens. I really enjoyed the use of dialect which appears in some parts of the book though it may pose a challenge to non-Scots. Even I had to look up some words! But don’t let that put you off, as it adds to the richness of the narrative.
News of the Dead is a book which will appeal to anyone who enjoys Scottish fiction and historical fiction. James Robertson is a natural storyteller and surely one of the most gifted of contemporary Scottish novelists.
News of the Dead is published by Penguin Books and available now in hardback, ebook
and audiobook. The paperback is due to be published in August.
About the Author
James Robertson is the author of The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still, The Professor of Truth and To Be Continued. Joseph Knight won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year, The Testament of Gideon Mack was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize, and And the Land Lay Still won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year. Robertson is also the author of four short story collections, most recently 365: Stories, five poetry collections and numerous children’s books written in English and Scots. He runs the independent publishing house Kettillonia, and he is co-founder and general editor of the Scots language imprint Itchy Coo, which produces books in Scots for children and young adults.