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Glen Lyon Paperback – 12 Sep 2013
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'Steven's first novel robustly and sensitively explores the debilitating consequences of abuse, violence and the lack of love. It promises even greater things to follow' --Scotland on Sunday
'There is honesty in the novel about the nature of love . . . gripping' --The Lochaber News
'This is no ordinary love story but a complex tale of two people feeling their way towards each other […] wonderful descriptions of a landscape and weather unique to Scotland' --Scottish Home and Country
About the Author
Kenneth Steven grew up in Highland Perthshire, but also lived in different parts of Norway (and has translated several books from Norwegian). As well as being a writer of fiction and poetry for adults and children, he makes many programmes for BBC Radio; his feature on St Kilda won a Sony in 2006. He recent collection of poetry, A Song among the Stones, was published by Polygon (2012).
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Somerled creates a new life for himself in the glen, and marries sweet, troubled Anna, the blacksmith's daughter, but their happiness is threatened by reverberations from the past.
The book reads almost as myth - there's a timelessness about it, a sense that Somerled represents many who have found themselves in despair. Glen Lyon deals with universal themes - love, brokenness, the quest for healing and freedom.
What particularly appeals to me is the author's emphasis on goodness and beauty. He has a powerful ability to deploy words which make live the beauties of nature and wildlife. His compassionate portrayal makes thoroughly good people interesting - people like Anna's parents Allan and Martha who make for old Aunt Jessie a place of `laughter and love without fear,' people like Donald, the old man who house was a refuge to Somerled as a boy. And I appreciated the tenderness with which Kenneth Steven celebrates Somerled and Anna's sexual discovery.
But the author does not hide from darkness. He captures sensitively the small miscommunications between Somerled and Anna, two people who love one another deeply - the questions not asked, the opportunities to speak neglected, the facial expression noted but not responded to - which threaten to destroy their relationship. He addresses Somerled's rejection by his parents, and the sexual abuse of his sister Deirdre which casts a long shadow over her life, and the question of whether our destiny is shaped by things which happened before we were born, a poison seeping down the generations.
As a Christian, I love Kenneth Steven's positive depiction of Christian characters. The minister in the glen who lives his faith `no matter what the cost.' The old man on a wintry railway station, `desperately thin and frail', handing out religious leaflets. For many novelists such a character would invite scornful dismissal. In contrast, Steven has Somerled wonder `at the devotion that made him stand there on such a day.'
And there is honesty in the novel about the nature of love. Somerled is not happy with the thoughts about love which he imagines or recalls his mother expressing: `Love is not about the bright days of summer' but `about the dark days, the days of storm, the days when there is no power', but in fact the whole novel explores whether the easy love of carefree sunlit days can even survive, let alone grow in the depths of winter.
One of Glen Lyon's themes is the longing for a perfect place - for an island (a recurring theme in Kenneth Steven's work,) for a secure place in the glen, for the beautiful world glimpsed at the bottom of the sea in the story Somerled tells baby Finn, a world beyond reach. It reminds me of writer C. S. Lewis's conviction that our longing for a perfect place is God-given - we do not long for things which don't exist, we are summoned by dreams of a better place.
The last 18 pages of the novel are gripping. Will the shadow lift? Will the story end in redemption and hope? Will the axe's creative power be overcome by its potential to destroy? Will a first smile crease the baby's lips?
Throughout Glen Lyon there is a sense of things waiting to be seen, waiting to be `found'. The creatures in drift wood, which Somerled's skilful carving can set free, the things Somerled has overlooked in previously-seen landscapes which he sees when the time for seeing them has come.
The boy Somerled, bound to the house by chores and piano practice looks despairingly at the dying light on the hills, afraid that by the time he had finished night would have fallen. As an adult he sometimes felt `that he had to go out into the light there and then because soon ...the day would be lost forever.'
For all of us, things await our seeing and our finding. There is still enough light on the hills to see by and Glen Lyon, this story `found' for us by a skilled craftsman in words, encourages us to lift up our eyes.
it took me a while to realise where in time the setting was and many passages, indeed the novel, require rereading
When Kenneth recently stayed with me for his workshop stint at the Maryport LitFest we swopped our latest books, my Marraton for his Glen Lyon. I don't think I'm indulging in false modesty when I say that I may have got the better deal.
Written during Kenneth's stay in Iceland and opening in almost saga style, lyrical distance of legend, nature dominant, Glen Lyon is transparently a tale written by a man who walks the wild places, has that unarguable veracity. '....to be out in the hills and lochs and the wildness of it all. It had breathed in him; he felt the blood of the land and he heard it under his feet.'
Such as it is the plot is this - a man with an axe, a simple man but not a simpleton, arrives in the wilds of Scotland, builds himself a house in the woods, meets and marries a girl from the nearby village; but with his own past all the while nipping at his heels, and getting in the way of his present. But a bigger present than his own, a present that the whole past has never left, that lies under and behind every fresh act. Myth, love and ancient beliefs as important as bus timetables.
Bracketed by uncertainty, our hero's escaping of a troubled past, the struggle not to become as his own parents, and a seeking to fulfill his guessed-at destiny, descriptive power alone carries the tale along. Because as with the wandering of wild places this book is full of beautiful moments, places where I hung a step, paused for a breath, beheld a view, a description so perfect....
Glen Lyon is a book whose hero I readily identified with. Ah, I hear a reader of this review say, but you and Kenneth are of like mind, like experience, of like aspirations. You both know as writers how success is of a moment and how failure drags along, how little control you have over that not under your own hands.
I am confident though that Glen Lyon isn't a book solely for writers. Anyone who has escaped a troubling past, who has tried to make something other of their lives will have fellow feeling with the characters here.
For all its topicality Glen Lyon is a work of art. A work of art I recommend be read - indulge me - to the accompaniment of Peter Maxwell Davis's Orkney compositions.
© Sam Smith November 19th 2013