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Thank God for Our Mothers
on 13 January 2000
This, in spite of the universal swell of acclaim which has greeted this book, is not only the most Scottish of novels, but indeed the most West of Scotland of novels, taking place mostly in Burns' Country in the south-west (Ayrshire) and in the uncrowned capital of Glasgow. The pleasure for a native Glaswegian lies in an immediate recognition of accent, pronunciation, speech patterns, patois and what amounts to the subtle insertion from time to time of private jokes. O'Hagan's skill lies in remaining true to his roots while not alienating his wider reading public. The novel covers four generations, from the narrator's paternal great-grandfather, married to an eventual Suffragette, but fated to die himself in Flanders fields, to his paternal grandfather, the socialist town planner, Hugh Bawn and his own father, Robert. Although he tots up the failings and sins of those fathers, the narrator himself (Jamie) is probably guilty of the greatest crime, that of refusing to extend the life of the Bawns into the next generation. Elsewhere, too, the author pulls no punches: Scotsmen's houses and mouths prove the one to be as uninhabitable as the other. Rotting teeth and filthy language suggest that fellow Scottish author James Kelman's portrayal of the average (West of) Scotsman is not that far wide of the mark. Perhaps we're better off keeping out of sight and letting the written word do our talking. Fortunately, yes fortunately, we have Our Mothers. The women outlive the men, and in many other ways overtake them in the survival stakes. If their menfolk are aye at the ready with a curse, the women prefer a song, preferring, strangely enough, "Blanket on the Ground" to the perennial "I Will Survive". A final word, to Andrew, in the words of one of his characters: "Gone yourself!" I'm sure he'll get it.