Stravaiger is a great Scots word. It is defined in the glossary at the back of this latest novel from Tom Hubbard, as ‘wanderer, traveller, itinerant’. The epithet could apply to the writer himself who has worked in various countries across the world during his career, but is also a pretty apt description of his singular writing style of this particular tale.
It is difficult to find a more appropriate word than that used on the book’s back cover to describe the story: sardonic. Hopping back and forth like a Fife version of Doctor Who, the text shifts from 1962 to 2012 and back again in this dark, slightly unsettling yet strangely gripping tale.
Among the cast of what feels like ‘hunners’ of characters, is the sad and sorry Andrew Burt, he of the “…head like a pear…that’s got aa squished and flattened at the bottom” whose dire disappearance from Mauletoun School is at the core of the story, if indeed such a core exists. His fellow boarder and outcast is Billy Torrance, a sensitive lad sent out to board by the ‘domestic ogre’ that is his faither to be made a man of (it didn’t work). Gayle (Merriman née Dornacher) who hails from the Southern States of the USA is bold, calculating and sassy nurse who belies her education to most except the reader. The school has a strong military presence in the form of Colonel Peter Malory and his kindly wife Cathy who run the show; strict disciplinarian and dog lover Captain Norman Wilkie and the eponymous Major Michael Bessop, a damaged man who carries deep wounds from old military experiences that impact tragically on his later life. The civilian Heidie is Dr Baxendale who quotes Shakespeare at every opportunity.
The book’s structure is unusual to say the least and there is a long build up to poor wee Burt’s disappearance and the possible reasons behind it. It is circular to some extent with
the character, Muriel Redburn, whose existence helps eventually tie things together, being alluded to obliquely in chapter one.
Hubbard’s ear for the vernacular is keen. Rather than give Billy Torrance a couthie Scots voice, the character speaks in authentic sounding Scots English that tellingly shifts to English in later life when he is established in the art world. Nurse Gayle’s Southern US voice is consistent, though having no direct experience of this speech I would be hesitant to say it rings as true. Hubbard uses the Scots language assuredly throughout and his familiarity with local geography of wherever location in the world he writes about is evident.
The self -confessed genre defying text is reminiscent of a thrawn wean insisting on wearing its own choice of a mixter maxter of clothes rather than its Sunday best but that’s held together with a braw and sartorially splendid belt. The belt in this case is Hubbard’s academia. This wilkie- tummelin whodunit feels like a vehicle for wider issues that at times override the actual story. Hubbard’s erudition manifests itself on every page with details of history, geography, language, art, architecture, politics and philosophy with pepperings of race and sex to spice things up. Add to the mix poetry either written in or translated to Scots and it is no wonder that categorising this novel is well- nigh impossible.
This complex yet compelling mystery on the hideous impact of abuse and cruelty is Tom Hubbard's second novel. The first was Marie B., a fictionalised account of the life and career of the Ukrainian-French painter, diarist and feminist journalist Marie Bashkirtseff (1858-1884), published by Ravenscraig Press in 2008.
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