A photo of Scottish author and poet James Robertson, close up, in grayscale

Photo: Marianne Mitchelson

Where many literary careers are defined by an explosive debut and an ongoing attempt to best it, James Robertson’s is the kind that has been slowly and meticulously built – and what a career it is. After publishing his first books of poetry and short stories in the early 1990s, Robertson released his debut novel, The Fanatic, in 2000. Since then, he’s amassed a host of literary awards, winning the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year twice (in 2003 for his novel Joseph Knight and again, in 2010, for And the Land Lay Still) and earning a Booker Prize nomination for his 2006 novel The Testament of Gideon Mack. His admirers include such esteemed peers as Ali Smith, Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith.

Robertson’s sixth and latest novel is News of the Dead, which tells the story of Glen Conach, a remote place in the mountains of north-east Scotland where a dearth of historical records has given rise to legends, memories, and secrets – and where, in the present day, a young man tries to make sense of the stories that haunt him. To celebrate the novel’s release, we asked Robertson to share a selection of books that inspired and moved him, below.

Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977)

Despite a longstanding interest in Native American history and culture, I had somehow not heard of this novel or its author, until this new edition came out in 2020. Ceremony tells the story of Tayo, who returns to the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico after the Second World War traumatised by his war experience, rejected by the USA for which he fought against the Japanese, and treated with suspicion on the reservation because he is of mixed race.

What follows is a process of healing - a combination of cattle-driving, dreaming, drinking and remembering, and most of all of immersion in the traditional stories, rituals and beliefs of his people. Beautiful, angry, profound, and as relevant today as it was in the 1970s.

Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown (1972)

2021 is the centenary of the birth of the Orkney writer George Mackay Brown, and I am reading my way through his five novels and two novellas. I read Greenvoe, his first novel, in the 1980s and its depiction of a small island, Hellya, and its only village, Greenvoe, remains fresh and funny, though running through it is Brown’s habitual concern with the threat of so-called ‘progress’ to traditional ways of life.

The men, women and children of Greenvoe are all capable of using cunning, deceit, bullying and scandal to score points off one another. They are divided by politics, class and creed, but they are also a community - one which, for the most part, has no inkling of the looming destructive danger of ‘Operation Black Star’, a mysterious military-industrial project for which the island is being sized up. Within two years of Greenvoe’s first publication, plans for a huge oil terminal on the island of Flotta were announced. George Mackay Brown seemed almost like a local prophet.

The Scottish Clearances by T.M. Devine (2018)

Subtitled A History of the Dispossessed, 1600-1900, this book not only places the Highland Clearances in the wider context of long-term displacement of people from the land throughout Scotland, but also relates this to something that was happening across much of Europe. Professor Devine collects and sifts evidence from a huge number of sources to make his account historically credible, but without losing compassion for those who were dispossessed. It is also highly readable.

Land clearance and its legacy is still a very controversial topic in the Highlands; the triumph of this book is not to diminish what happened there but to show that, despite its peculiarly brutal and culturally devastating characteristics, it was a late manifestation of a movement that had already permanently changed the population distribution of the Lowlands.

I Will Never See the World Again by Ahmet Altan (2019)

The Turkish writer Ahmet Altan spent four and a half years in prison after criticising the Erdogan government and writing in support of Kurdish rights. He was released in April 2021, aged 71, after a court rejected the alleged reasons for his arrest and detention. While incarcerated, he wrote this astonishing book, which had to be smuggled out of prison to be published. It is a sparkling work of defiance, courage and even humour, in which Altan ridicules his oppressors even as he fears he may never be released. It is the most eloquent defence of freedom of expression I have ever read. I only hope that in similar circumstances I would show such resilience and clear-headedness.

The Forsyte Saga Volume Three by John Galsworthy (1933)

John Galsworthy was a brilliant chronicler of the English upper middle class from the late Victorian age to the aftermath of the First World War. A worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, he was too ill to attend the ceremony and died a few weeks later.

I have read the first parts of the Forsyte Saga, his magnum opus, two or three times, but did not know that there were three late additions, describing the lives of the Forsytes’ cousins the Cherrells: Maid in Waiting (1931), Flowering Wilderness (1932) and Over the River (1933), collectively known as End of the Chapter. They are just as good as the volumes that preceded them, keen of observation and generous of spirit. Now that I have read these once, I will have to go back to the beginning and read the entire saga all over again.

What We Did in the Dark by Ajay Close (2020)

This was my favourite novel of last year. Set in the early 1900s, Ajay Close’s claustrophobic, gripping tale is based on the true story of the young Scottish writer Catherine Carswell’s disastrous first marriage to Herbert Jackson, a man whose mental instability was made much worse by what he witnessed and did during the Boer War. In an age when it was incredibly difficult for a woman to extricate herself from a bad marriage, Catherine had to work hard for her emotional, physical and legal freedom. Ajay Close is not unsympathetic to Herbert’s condition, but it is Catherine’s heroic determination to make her own future that drives the narrative forward. An absolute page-turner, which deserves far more attention than it has received to date.

 

News of the Dead by James Robertson is out now.

  • News of the Dead

  • 'To tell the story of a country or a continent is surely a great and complex undertaking; but the story of a quiet, unnoticed place where there are few people, fewer memories and almost no reliable records - a place such as Glen Conach - may actually be harder to piece together. The hazier everything becomes, the more whatever facts there are become entangled with myth and legend. . .'

    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.

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