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4.0 out of 5 stars Neil Gunn’s first novel …especially recommended to anyone who hasn’t read Gunn before., 8 Mar. 2014
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This review is from: Grey Coast (Paperback)
The ‘grey coast’ of the title is the coastal strip of Caithness in the north east of Scotland. As in many of his novels, Gunn vividly depicts depopulation and economic decline. The eldest son traditionally inherits his father’s croft; the others leave, typically for Canada, and don’t come back. Once ‘the great industry of the coast’, the fishing is dying. Now only three boats fish out of the local harbour; all too often the crews return catch-less.

In this, his first novel, Gunn’s primary focus is on his four protagonists and their inter-relationships. ‘Ould’ Jeems represents how matters used to be: Jeems left Scotland but made his fortune, returned to Caithness and took a croft. It says much for Gunn’s skill in characterisation that the reader can sympathise with Jeems, a scheming, depraved and mean-minded miser. Jeems’ scheming centers on ‘trading’ favours with Daun Tullach, ‘a farmer in a fair way’, on the tacit understanding that Tullach will bed and wed Maggie, Jeems’ niece. Gunn can sometimes struggle in his portrayal of young women but is largely successful with the 22 year-old Maggie, not least because of the terrible predicament in which Gunn places the girl. Maggie finds Tullach abhorrent in every respect but is sensitive to the economic benefits of such a union. Marriage to Tullach will provide financial security for herself and the uncle who did, after all, take her in when her mother died. Tullach is an unappealing but strongly-drawn character. Gunn superbly captures the ambivalent feelings of the man. Tullach sees his favours for Jeems and his slow courtship of Maggie as beneath his dignity as a successful farmer. Yet, Tullach’s desire for Maggie and his, at times, transparent lust madden him and drive him on in pursuit of the girl.

Gunn provides Maggie with an alternative lover in Ivor Cormack. Ivor is a ‘limber young fellow’ but appears incapable of declaring his feelings for Maggie, has no prospects whatsoever and seems another younger son bound for Canada. Because it is not in his nature to say much, Ivor is easily misread as the ‘young’ school master does. The latter recognises ‘the elusive something of self-reliance and sensitiveness’ in Ivor, ‘a something not of the land so much as the sea’. Yet the schoolmaster cannot fathom why Ivor can only comprehend ‘poverty’ in ‘the clay cabin and the bean rows and the bees’ in Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. Ivor’s culture, education and economic circumstance combine against him articulating his tortured soul. Gunn is frequently at his most brilliant at the unsaid. With Ivor, Gunn typically finds ways other than words to express the man’s feelings. After a frustrating interview with Maggie we read how Ivor takes himself off to sit at the burn side. Gunn encapsulates Ivor’s pent-up emotions in, for example, the single sentence paragraph – ‘His heal ground the shingle apart’; then, again, three lines later – ‘His heal dug a hole into which the water soaked’. Gunn doesn’t always manage his endings well. Not in ‘The Grey Coast’, however. As ‘the greenish, elfin silver of the moon’s sickle was gathering substance in a fading sky’, Gunn brings together his four protagonists, Jeems, Maggie, Tullach and Cormack, on a blasted heath in a way that is satisfying and credible.

Gunn’s great strength in writing can be his greatest weakness. Gunn’s lyrical, poetic-prose, style can run away with him. He can also be prone to over-symbolising. Gunn obviously intends the school master be over-blown when he sees Ivor as a ‘sample’ of ‘primal self-sufficiency’ but Gunn has tendencies to think and write in that way himself. At best, Gunn’s lyricism leads to terrific set-pieces of descriptive action. For example, the description of the tiny fishing fleet leaving Balriach harbour is beautifully done:

'Everything was ready. Some hand-shaking, greater laughter, more chaff. ‘See ye fill her to the gun’les!...Good shots to ye, Davie!...Keep the skimmer busy, boys!...’ Mooring ropes were slipped from the bollards, dropped on board with a thud. With oar-purchase on the quay-wall, the crew of The Dawn soon had their lady sniffing the sea. Then krk! krk! krk! went the rhythmic song of the halliards as the great brown mainsail swung its lifting peak’.

Again, whist sections of later Gunn novels are almost DIY manuals on how to salmon-poach, ‘The Grey Coast’ has wonderfully accurate descriptions of how to snare rabbits and, even more so, the thrill of bringing this off successfully on someone else’s property!

Neil Gunn is little read these days. Yet Gunn is a richly rewarding, albeit flawed, writer. His novels are firmly grounded in specific historical, geographical and socio-economic contexts but offer insights into the human condition that transcend locale. ‘The Grey Coast’ is especially recommended to anyone who hasn’t read Neil Gunn before.
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Grey Coast
Grey Coast by Neil Gunn (Paperback - 1 Sept. 1976)
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