on 12 December 2000
I wish all first novels were as accomplished as this. Set at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth, The Rising Sun tells the story of independent Scotland's attempt to establish a colony in the narrowest part of Central America. The colony at Darien is the vision of the directors of the newly-founded Company of Scotland, a venture intended to rival and surpass the English East India Company by gaining a stranglehold over east-west trade between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The narrator, Roderick Mackenzie, is a naïve, arrogant Edinburgh clerk on the make, who by luck, guile and good timing manages to obtain first the position of secretary to the Company, then a passage to Darien as superintendent of cargoes on the Rising Sun, bound for the new world with the first colonists. Mackenzie keeps a record not only of the ship's voyage but also, subsequently, of the fortunes of 'Caledonia' and its new residents, who meet with embargoes from the Spanish and the perfidious English, as well as the unforgiving elements and splits and disillusionment in their own ranks. It's often said that British novels don't take on big, worldly subjects, but that doesn't apply to The Rising Sun, which proves how powerful the use of a historical setting can be as a means of treating contemporary themes. It's about Scotland's destiny and place in the world, particularly in relation to England, as it stakes all on a desperate bid to escape the influence of its southern neighbour and grab power and wealth for itself. It takes a look at idealistic nationalism and sees, bound up with it, selfish interest and the greed of the speculative society. The idea of community and the trendy post-colonial thing get in there, too, in an ironic way. The main things that strike the reader are the consistent underlying mood of serious comedy, and somehow a real sense of place wherever the action is: at sea and in the strange landscape of Caledonia, but especially in Edinburgh, which is almost as much a character in the book as the vintner Colquhoun (whom it's difficult not to picture as Robbie Coltrane), the merchant d'Azevedo, each a man of the world in his own way, or the clergyman who 'goes native', Mackay. Humanity's collective vanities and follies are certainly displayed in this novel, and its cruel, hard and mean members exposed, but there's also, for instance in the portrayal of the jolly community of pirates and Widow Gilbert's respectable brothel, an attractive acceptance of our inevitable venality and self-indulgence. The historical setting and language are entirely convincing and the entertainment and feeling of purpose are sustained. Perhaps the first hundred pages are demanding but then that's true of many of the very best novels. It will remind some readers of Lawrence Norfolk and perhaps of Giles Foden. The Rising Sun does not just show promise - it's a cracking novel, and at least as good a debut as, say, White Teeth. Amazingly, though, it didn't even make the shortlist for the Guardian First Book Award. Questions should be asked in the Scottish Parliament.
on 12 January 2007
I never knew about this episode in Scottisch history before reading this book, but it truly is a tale of epic proportions.
Galbraith writes with a superb eye for character building and dramatisation, but what really makes this novel stand out for me as one af the best historical novels I've ever read is how he manages to combine humour and tragedy. In the end, this is a tragic tale of human greed and shattered hopes, but while reading it I caught myself laughing out loud countless times.
If only all historical novels were this good!