Having really enjoyed Ross Raisin's debut novel God's Own Country I was looking forward to reading Waterline, which tells the story of former Glasgow shipbuilder Mick Little and opens with the funeral of his beloved wife Cathy. Cathy's relatives have always looked down on Mick and, despite their outward show of sympathy and support, he's reluctant to accept anything from them and wants them out of his house and back up to `The Highlands` as quickly as possible. As far as the rest of his family is concerned, one son lives nearby but is emotionally distant (and it has to be said, a little odd) and the other has made a new life for himself with his wife and son in Australia.
Mick had to take time off from his casual driving job to look after Cathy during the final stages of her illness, and by the time he is finally ready to return they don't have any work for him. Depression quickly takes hold. Mick's descent from a man in regular work with a good home to an unemployed alcoholic sleeping rough on the streets is rapid but shockingly believable. At times I was angry at him for the choices he made, particularly when his pride got in the way of him claiming benefits, accepting charity etc, but then I would be reminded that Mick is a traditional working-class man who has worked hard all his life and would naturally find it hard to accept what he considered to be handouts.
Through Mick we experience the twilight world of casual labour where vulnerable workers are treated appallingly and paid less than minimum wage (if they get paid at all). We also get an insight into the services available to homeless people - I'm familiar with the soup kitchens run by churches and well-meaning volunteers ("the Hallelujahs" as Mick calls them) but I wasn't quite so aware of the work carried out by larger charities to rehabilitate homeless people and assist them to claim the benefits they`re entitled to, fill out job applications and apply for housing, as well as giving them a roof over their heads and gently encouraging them back into society.
I think Ross Raisin has a wonderful ear for dialogue and Mick's story is told in a gentle, almost poetic Scottish dialect (which is nowhere near as broad as Sam Marsdyke's Yorkshire accent in God's Own Country). At no time does Mick come across as maudlin or self-pitying and what could have been a grim, depressing indictment on the society we live in is actually a very poignant and extremely moving portrayal of grief and the devastation it can cause, which left me feeling extremely grateful for everything I've got.
Utterly believable narrative, following Mick Little, once a Glaswegian shipbuilder, now a driver, in the aftermath of his wife's death. From the fairly normal beginning, where he is hanging up condolences cards and his family are staying with him, Mick's life soon disintegrates entirely. As the relatives go home, and his employer has no work for him, Mick finds himself unable to sleep in the house, in debt and increasingly dependent on superlager...
Written in dialect (which the reader soon becomes used to,although it took me to the latter part of the book to work out that 'on the broo' translates as 'on the dole' and has nothing to do with alcohol!) which gives a really authentic feel to the writing.
Mick tries to distance himself from his memories, from the difficult relationship with his son and from the seemingly patronising attitude of his wife's better-off family, and those around him:
"We've no been thinking about anything else. Really, Mary? Ye sure about that? You've been thinking about what DVDs to watch and that your fence needs a varnish, but no, see, what we've really been thinking about is Cathy and this terrible situation here. That's what's been on our minds the whole time. And have ye gave much thought, Mary, how it's Cathy copped her whack and it's no you?"
The author takes a deprived, depressed character and builds a convincing storyline that engages our sympathies; the postscript tells of the research he did for the book in a centre for the homeless.
Every bit as good - in a very different way - to his other work, 'God's own Country'.
on 15 January 2012
Ross Raisin tells the story of Mick and his descent into despair, depression, alcoholism and homeless. His downfall is triggered by the death of his wife. It seems that Mick, a former Glasgow shipbuilder, has had episodes with 'the drink' in the past, but his stable family life pulled him through. This time he strikes out on his own and the results are fairly catastrophic.
The dialect appears convincing - but then I'm not a Glaswegian. Other people have picked up on some details that apparently didn't strike the right note. Overall though he seems to capture the rhythms of Mick's voice, and although some of the words and phrases are a little unfamiliar it isn't difficult to follow the sense of it.
It's mostly told from Mick's point of view, but very occasionally there is a change of perspective, sometimes just for a paragraph or two, and often switching to a minor character who has no role other than bystander. At first I found this a little disjointed but then I realised it was almost a cinematic device. Very suddenly you are taken out of Mick's head and shown what he looks like to a casual observer. That casual observer could be you: judging him as a homeless person, a destitute, a drunk, someone you would cross the road to avoid. That realisation gave me a jolt. In 'A Fine Balance,' one of the best books I have ever read, Rohinton Mistry humanises the beggars in India and gives them a history and a voice. Raisin isn't quite in Mistry's league but he does a fair job of doing the same for a working class Scottish man whose life has gone into freefall. It reminds you that he has a past, a family, emotions and feelings, and that the way he is now isn't the summation of his life. The descriptions of living rough are painstakingly detailed. Raisin has clearly done his research.
The ending, a final brief switch to the perspective of observer is very enigmatic but I won't give anything away. Read it for yourself. Best book I've read so far this year - but then it's only the 15th January!
on 13 October 2011
"And see if he did put a claim in then the reminders would be there the whole time--for months, years, however long it took--and even that is still ignoring the main thing: why should he get a windfall? Him that brought it into the house and handed her the overalls to wash and here's two hundred grand, pal, take it, it's yours--you deserve it."
After the death of his wife to mesothelioma, Mick has to start his life over, struggling with the guilt from her death attributable to residue from his job in the shipyards. While his children hint at getting a settlement, to punish the company that virtually saturated their employees in asbestos, Mick resists any idea of what he imagines a payoff for her death.
While the story proceeds with his descent into grief, it never plays into the stereotype of the grieving widower who travels through five stages of grief to recover and find love again with a sweet old lady down the street. Instead, his journey is literal. Unable, emotionally, to reside in the house anymore, he starts sleeping in a shed outside, and his focus changes to minor things to avoid thinking about the bigger issues. He begins finding a kinship more with the birds he feeds than with other humans.
"He listens, enjoying the sound of it, as they begin skittering on the concrete outside the shed door...Until recently there'd been just the one - probably the same patient guy that's been coming all the while -but he's obvious gone and let dab to all his mates that they can come and eat here, and now there's a whole mob of them. Good for him, no keeping it all to himself. Obviously no an English bird. A genuine Southsider, that sparrow. "
The quote above reveals a wry humor that Mick has, told in his warm Glasgow accent. It's revealed again as he's run out of money, and thinks about the possibility of asking his brother-in-law for money:
"...he'd be pure delighted, guaranteed. A great song and dance over it, the ceremonious fetching of the chequebook, the smug showy putting on of the wee reading glasses. How much would you like, Mick? Really, it's not a problem. How much?"
Instead of resorting to that indignation, Mick chooses another option: complete departure, from both Glasgow and reality. He ends up in London living a life he'd never imagined, and one that he hopes to hide from his sons left behind, who know nothing of his location.
Mick's voice is full of irony and desperate humor, especially when he remarks on the cheap condolences friends make when they see him. He's a realist that knows far too well how little people really feel about his loss. In this many vivid side characters are pulled in, and while they don't appear long, they are memorable for the way they are described.
Midway through the novel I glanced at the author's photograph in the back. It stopped me in my tracks. It's a young guy that wrote this aged voice! It sort of put me off, for a day anyway, because I couldn't imagine how a young man (anyone younger than me qualifies in that regard) could create such a complex persona that melds humor, regret, guilt, and anxiety in one realistic character. Topping it off is the Scottish voice that Mick delivers his thoughts in; sometimes an accent is hard to read because it doesn't flow, but in this case it was much of the charm. Would make a killer audiobook!)
Especially noteworthy is that while it is essentially a quest motif, the fact that neither the reader nor the protagonist knows the object that is being sought makes it mysterious. The pace speeds up as you literally follow Mick through a labyrinth of people and places, and you really don't know where he's headed. And the questions continue to plague you: what happened to his sons? Who were the men at the door? Will he go back to Glasgow? What was up with Craig?
This is on target for my top five titles of 2011. Not only because of the main character and the plot, but also because of what it reveals about those living outside the margins of society. While the underbelly of large cities is often presented as a place of crime and prostitution, Waterline exposes the remote lives of immigrants and the homeless, attempting to live an honorable life while no one wants to meet their eyes.
Ross Raisin's new novel Waterline, like his brilliant 2008 debut God's Own Country before it, is essentially about marginalisation from society. Whereas that was a tale set amongst the wilds of the Yorkshire countryside, about a young man sinking into insanity, this book has a distinctly urban setting. For it is only amid the bustle of big cities where your soul can get truly lost.
Mick was a shipbuilder on the Clyde, in the days when such manufacturing still survived in Glasgow. And it is the deadly fallout from this occupation, in the form of asbestos, which has caused the death of his wife Cathy at the outset of the novel. We get to know Mick immediately Cathy's funeral, with distant family members unconvincingly encouraging Mick to stay in touch afterwards:' "Don't be a stranger now" ...The kind of thing you say to people who are strangers'.
Raisin's description of Mick's inability to cope alone in his home is perfect in its quiet perception. Mick aimlessly gathers piles of stuff together, that only bring back painful memories and cause him to retreat into his shed. He is racked with guilt at the asbestos which he has brought into their lives, and that it was Cathy and not himself who succumbed to its lethal effects. This story is a haunting study into how a life can unravel - how anyone can sink from living an ordinary life into near oblivion in a few easy steps. It is something we often say - it could be any of us - but Ross Raisin describes with pinpoint accuracy how it could actually happen without aim or objective.
His perception into the plight of someone like Mick, who is totally lost without his wife to guide him through the everyday decisions of his life, is astounding. 'Best not to think about the big picture right now, because it's just too bloody big ... and he's too close up to be able to see it properly.' It is achingly sad to see Mick slip day by day into destitution and desperation, despite having loving sons who would have helped - if only they had realised there was a problem.
Mick's dependency on Cathy is replaced by one on Bean, a homeless guy who has a tendency to disappear without warning with bouts of depression, then return without a word of explanation or comment. Their experiences on the streets and hostels of their new world are interspersed with snippets of how they are viewed by the rest of the world. It is a clever device which jolts the reader into their own reality and helps to ask serious questions about how we view homeless people.
This is a seriously moving and relevant story, and is written in a confident, spare style which belies much meaning. With it, Ross Raisin is developing into an extremely accomplished and important writer.
on 12 July 2012
Great story about Glasgow, shipyards, Thatcher and unemployment in the 1980s.
Mick is a really sympathetic character.
Glasgow dialect is clear once you pick out the key phrases - past participle used as a past tense, no for not and sentences ending but, and some weird vocabulary.
State-of-the-nation style novel encapsulating the period and some very realistic people - some who do not ingratiate themselves with the reader but several who you can really empathise with (Beans, Mick, Robbie, Craig, the female social worker, Dia, the student etc.).
The book starts out looking like a really depressing read but, after the initial fall and slow degeneration of Mick, it settles down to a fascinating overview of how depression and unemployment, bereavement and failure can bring someone down very low but never completely defeat the spirit's capacity to survive and carry on against all odds.
guillaume de manzac
on 20 October 2011
This is a riveting, slow-motion car crash of a story. Frightening and relentless, it makes George Orwell's 'Down and Out in Paris and London' feel like a walk in the park - fortunately, not the same park that Mick Little sleeps in.
on 17 September 2015
Really, really difficult to rate this. As a convincing, heart-tearing vivid and penetrating piece of fiction, an insight into the life and mind - and voice! - of a man bereaved of wife, job and reason for existing, it could hardly be beaten, and Ross Raisin did a superb job in keeping me turning the pages, but, goodness was it depressing and doom-laden, with a heart-stopping ending. To say I 'loved' it would be a lie. Nevertheless, it is an amazing piece of work.
on 22 December 2012
I won't start by dictating the plot of this accomplished second novel by Ross Raisin - other reviewers have helpfully done that.
The downward spiral on which Mick descends - initially from his seemingly acceptable garden shed sleeping period, started to avoid facing up to dealing with continuing everyday life without Cathy - to his dependence on alcohol and eventual running away from the place which spawned his extreme guilt at her death - highlights the ease with which the lives of some people can implode by almost imperceptible degrees. Gradually what was once unacceptable behaviour becomes the norm and the slippery slope beckons to homelessness and day to day survival. This novel is a comment on the underworld of society, once people with seemingly normal lives slip through its net.
Raisin's succinct prose captures Mick's inward turmoils as he continually justifies his new behaviours to himself; but we never lose the sense of who he once was and where he came from, all of which makes the eventual slight upturn in the fortunes of this proud unassuming Scotsman such a relief.
I loved this novel and once you have got the knack of hearing the Glaswegian dialect in your head as you read,Mick's tale draws you in very swiftly. So much so that, whilst I was reading the book, I watched a TV report on homeless people in hostels and for a moment I found myself wondering if Mick was amongst the down and outs portrayed in the film! There's immersion in a plot for you - Ross Raisin's next project should be a gritty TV script....
on 4 April 2014
When I first started reading this book I nearly put it aside about half way through the second chapter but something made me persevere and I’m glad I did. Once you get used to the vernacular (it’s written in a broad Glaswegian accent) the story of Mick, a former plate-worker on Clydebank, and his misery after his wife died, unfolds. After the funeral, Mick’s life gradually disintegrates as he struggles to come to terms with life without his wife. The spiral of depression deepens and he eventually ends up on the streets in London. This story tells us in shocking and graphic reality how easily depression can take hold and the effects it has on the whole family. Believe me: it’s a real page-turner!