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Highland River: 12 (Canongate Classics)
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 15 February 2007
This is a novel to read slowly and reflectively. There are always questions to be asked: Why is Gunn telling us this? What is the deeper significance of the river and the salmon? What is really the nature of Kenn's quest? -Surely more than tracing a river to its source.
To compare this with his earlier "Morning Tide" is to move from straightforward narrative to a far more complex structure, and from a simple enjoyment of times past to a brooding quest for the real nature of the principal character.
There is still the same delightful evocation of landscape and the unique atmosphere of the Highlands; there is still a wealth of acute observation and understanding of childhood, but here, the middle-aged man is hovering like a bird over his younger self, re-living with sharp awareness some of the most telling episodes, always seeking a deeper understanding of himself.
In much of Gunn's writing, the salmon symbolizes knowledge, which suggests a reason for the vivid opening description of young Kenn wrestling with the huge salmon and valiantly attempting to take it home to help feed his family, a theme re-echoed later on as he struggles against the odds to gain his Leaving Certificate.
Like the salmon driven by a mysterious inner force to seek the upper reaches of the river, so Kenn is driven to seek an ever-deeper awareness of his roots among Scotland's people and a glimpse of what ultimately awaits the human spirit.
As I said, a novel for careful reading and thoughtful enjoyment.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 23 November 2013
A novel that succeeds on different levels - `specific', archetypal, philosophical and technical

Neil Gunn's `Highland River' is successful on a number of levels. As Diarmid Gunn, the novelist's nephew, explains in his introduction to the Cannongate Classics edition, Kenn (the novel's central character) is `essentially' Neil Gunn's brother, John, to whom the book is dedicated. Gunn indicates that his uncle's novel describes the `intricate relationship between a specific boy and a specific river'. The river of the title is the Dunbeath Water of the Caithness village that was Neil Gunn's birthplace. Dunbeath Heritage Centre has a website with graphic photographs of locations featured in `Highland River'. On the website, juxtaposed excerpts from the novel evidence how well Neil Gunn transmutes the local landscape into literature through heightened use of language.

Diarmid Gunn suggests that `the boy represents an archetypal boy living in a clearly defined highland community at a certain time'. `Highland River' is a delicately done depiction of boyhood and adolescence in the last century, not only in the highlands but beyond. For example, Gunn's account of a young boy unexpectedly meeting and being attracted by an older girl is a `classic':

`I know what you're doing,' he challenged.
`What?'
`Gathering roses to make scent.'
`How do you know?'
`Just because.'
`Because what?'
`Because I know.'
`Well - look!' And she opened her pinafore.
`That's a good lot,' he admitted.
`But I want an awful lot,' she said.
His heart was beating now. `I'll gather one or two then,' he offered with a gulp. `I'm not in an awful hurry.'
`Will you? That's grand. What a fright you gave me!' She looked at him and smiled. And now her face was girl's face and its skin all warm and soft. He got from her the strange soft scent that comes from a girl's face when you are pulling her hair and she attacks you. Only now they were not fighting.

Kenn helps Annie Grierson gather her wild rose petals but can't help showing off; Annie takes Kenn by the hand, leads him to the burn and swishes water on his hands bloodied by thorns, her hair tickling his face. At this point, Kenn's peremptory `So Long' leaves Annie `mute'. The girl watches the boy as he hurries off, slows up, calls out that he has discovered a beautifully scented white rose, continues on his way whistling, and washes his hands again. Annie turns away so doesn't see Kenn frustratedly batter a handful of elvers to death. Finally, `with great daring', Kenn turns and waves; Annie acknowledges. Afterwards, at school, Kenn never looks at Annie but `occasionally he would go as far as the Broch Pool by himself, purely, of course, to see if there was a salmon in it'.

`Highland River' is an explication of a recurrent theme in Neil Gunn's fiction: our relationship to the past. In Kenn, Gunn has created a compelling character `aware of how the races that had gone to his making had each left its signature on the river bank'. On one side of the harbour mouth the place-name is Gaelic; on the other side it is Norse. The confluence of Dunbeath Water and its first tributary is overlooked by the ruins of a Pictish broch. As Kenn grows up beside his highland river, Gunn provides him with deeply-felt experiences that reinforce Kenn's connections with his Celtic and pre-Cetic past. Gunn's message is straightforward: one loses such connections at one's peril. When Kenn seeks out his older brother Angus in the trenches of the First World War, Kenn is shocked at the empty shell of a man whom he finds. Angus has been shrapnelled at Ypres, hospitalised and re-sent to the front; Kenn reminds Angus of shared salmon poaching on the Dunbeath Water but `he did not seem to care about remembering'.

Technically, this is a wonderful novel. `Highland River' has no plot in the conventional sense. Gunn deliberately complicates his chronology. Kenn is a boy; next Kenn is a man at war; then Kenn is at the academy or university; next Kenn is returning to his river in later life; then, again, Kenn is a boy; and so on. Gunn signals neither flashbacks nor fast-forwards. Thus Gunn demonstrates how possible it is for us to experience past, present and future time, existing simultaneously and interacting with each other to make us what we are. In order to capture the depth of Kenn's experiences, Gunn harnesses the lyrical techniques of poetry, particularly ellipsis in order to condense meaning and a `choice' word to emotively charge the significance of a line. Gunn's accounts of salmon poaching in the pools of the Dunbeath Water represent the writer at his best: in controlled use of language, Gunn paces his narrative to catch the rhythm of events. For Kenn, salmon fishing is a life-affirming connection with a hunting past; for a financially stretched household, it is an economic necessity with potentially dire consequences if caught by Gordon, the gamekeeper. Dedicating `Highland River' to his brother, John, Neil Gunn refers to those frequent times when they returned from fishing with `an empty bag' but the `delight' they got from a northern river. For the reader, `Highland River' is delight-full.

Stewart Robertson
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on 3 May 2000
Never had I expected to read a book about a boy wrestling with a fish. So great was this story that a statue to the boy Kenn, is displayed on the docks in Dunbeath. Excellent reading. I loved this book!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 April 2015
I can highly recommend this beautifully written book set in the valley of the Dunbeath Water in Caithness. The story is told through the visions of Kenn - the river and of course the Salmon is at the epicentre but much more exudes from him in his descriptions of wildlife, his early experiences, the challenges that life presents and his connections with his parents and his siblings. I read the whole book in virtually a single sitting - it very much reminded me of my exploits as a young lad of a similar age many years ago. Treat yourself to some of the most popular writings of Neil Gunn….this book is a good place to start.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 26 December 2012
I enjoyed this book very much. It painted a very clear and interesting picture of the Highlands of Scotland in the 19th century and the life of children at that time.
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on 14 August 2015
The boy heroes of this and the excellent silver darlings began to grate on me with their petulance and self-obsession. The mystical allegory of the river didn't quite work for me. As a physicist brought up in the N-E of Scotland, many parts did resonate with me, though
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on 10 September 2013
Highland River is a unique artistic achievement; it is a prose poem and also a significant social document of its time..
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on 15 December 2014
A bit obtuse but some marvelous lyrical and memorable parts.
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on 4 February 2015
Fascinating under-read novellist
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on 10 March 2015
Excellent
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