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Timor mortis conturbat me...
on 15 August 2015
After a narrow escape from death as a result of a cyst in his brain, Eddie Mackay is obsessed with thoughts of his own mortality. While lying semi-conscious in hospital, he is 'visited' by his long-dead father who seems to want to tell him something. He learns from his mother that his father once had an affair in Penang, back in the late colonial days of the 1930s, and becomes engrossed in trying to find out more about this period of his father's life. The book takes the form of two stories running in parallel – Eddie's recuperation from his illness on Orkney and his father's story as a young doctor in Penang, with the links being provided by Eddie's slow research into his father's life. Both strands involve the complicated love affairs of father and son.
The writing is excellent and Greig brings both very different locations to life. The contrasts between the wild, windswept cold of an Orkney winter and the tropical heat and sudden rains of Penang are vivid and beautifully described. Each society is a small, enclosed one – Orkney by virtue of its island remoteness, and Penang where the colonials remain a separate group within the wider population – and each is a place where secrets are hard to keep, where everyone knows everyone else's business. Eddie, as the main focus of the novel, is particularly well drawn as a man struggling to deal with the aftermath of a traumatic experience, and trying to find something to give his life new meaning. Sandy, the father, is a little less well developed, and indeed this is true of most of the other characters, who seem sometimes to be 'types' rather than people. The characters in the Penang section in particular are a little too stereotypical, as if drawn from the fiction of the era rather than from life. But the Orkney side of the story works much better, giving a completely credible picture of a small society now expanded by incomers who both conform to and yet impact on the traditions of the place.
So, much to praise about the book. Unfortunately, I have a total antipathy to literary fiction that, however beautifully written, doesn't have a decent plot, and I'm afraid this falls into that category. The Penang story is about Sandy's love affair, and we are pretty much told how that ends before it begins. The Orkney story is about middle-aged Eddie's sex-affair (to call it a love-affair would be stretching it) with Mica, the half-crazed woman he sleeps with on an occasional basis. The strand about Eddie's research into his father's past is rather pointless for the most part and ends with a totally contrived and unbelievable denouement. It feels as if it only exists as an excuse to link the two stories. The book might have worked better if it was shorter, but it drags on for 500 pages, much of which is filled with repeated descriptions of the landscape, weather and culture of the two locations. I'm afraid 500 pages of slow-moving, upmarket romance is too much for me, unless it provides some insight into the ever-nebulous 'human condition', and I felt this doesn't particularly. The question of Eddie's fear of mortality is raised many times, but insufficiently examined to provide any feeling of real depth.
As always, it's a matter of personal taste. I'm hesitant to criticise too harshly because as I've said there's much to admire, and many readers I'm sure will find the parallel love affairs sufficient to hold their attention, especially given the interesting locations. But for me fine writing, excellent descriptions and good characterisation are only part of what makes for great literary fiction – it must also have either a strong story or a profundity to it, or preferably both, and unfortunately I didn't find much of either in this one.