Top positive review
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A novel of two eras, but not enough coherence between them.
on 6 April 2010
James Robertson isn't just an excellent Scottish writer; he's an excellent writer, period. His knowledge of Scottish history is as impressive as his ability to evoke vivid images in the mind's eye of the reader. Having previously read and been amazed by 'The Testament of Gideon Mack', I picked up 'The Fanatic' with high hopes. When I read that witchcraft, religious persecution, ghosts, intolerance, bestiality and incest were ingredients in the story, I expected a yarn of Tam O' Shanteresque proportions. The result, however, fell short of that mark.
The story follows Andrew Carlin, who secures a cash-in-hand job on an Edinburgh ghost tour, playing the spectre of Major Weir, an infamous historical figure executed in Edinburgh during the 17th Century for being in league with the Devil, and other crimes such as incest with his sister, and bestiality with a variety of animals. As Carlin's research takes him deep into Major Weir's past, they become kindred souls of sorts; both Carlin and Weir have been plagued by personal demons, just as both have been misunderstood, feared, despised and persecuted. Carlin's consciousness increasingly straddles two eras, one foot planted in the past, one in the present day, but existing fully in neither. His studies and visions uncover a James Mitchel, co-conspirator of Major Weir, and fellow Covenanter. Mitchel's failed assassination attempt on Archbishop James Sharp led to his torture and subsequent imprisonment on Bass Rock, where his mental and physical faculties went into decline. There are parallels between Mitchel's exile on Bass Rock and Carlin's banishment from Scotland after (being falsely accused of) the attemped rape of an underage girl. Indeed, 'The Fanatic' is a story of parallels: parallel times in Scottish history; parallel lives of kindred souls; parallels between physical sacrifice and spiritual enlightenment; parallels between historical control by the church and current control by political factions; parallels between medieval fear of witchcraft and devilry, and modern-day fear of repeating history's mistakes; parallels between external and internal demons. I hoped the story's two timelines would join together in a coherent climax, in the way Salman Rushdie's masterful 'Midnight's Children' does. Not so. Rather than tying up the loose ends in a beautiful reconciliation, Robertson leaves them flapping in the wind, still disconnected. The moral of the story remains unclear. That said, 'The Fanatic' is an enjoyable read and a non-sugar-coated education on Scotland's chequered past with regards to religious persecution and violation of human rights. Perhaps that is the book's only stumbling point: that it sticks too rigidly to historical fact, without unleashing Robertson's creative imagination and letting it run riot. I frequently felt that Robertson was holding back his imagination, perhaps in the name of brevity, or perhaps in the interest of historical authenticity.
James Robertson is a stickler for detail. This makes his writing specific and, thus, believable. The book's characters, especially those rooted in historical fact, are well fleshed out. Robertson's language is both beautifully descriptive and unquestionably Scottish. Despite that, I can't help feeling that his best writing is yet to come. If James Robertson learns to let his imagination run amok like the fearless Salman Rushdie or Umberto Eco, we'll be in for a real treat. In the meantime, he's one of the best writers out there and has technical ability in spades.
I reserve five-star reviews for books that I consider to be masterpieces. While 'The Fanatic' is well-written, historically accurate and an enjoyable read, it doesn't fall into that category. Without any doubt, though, it deserves a solid four stars.