During my stay-at-home summer, I tried to avoid the allure of Euro-soccer and Olympic Games in order to catch up with my reading of novels that I felt I ought to have read, but hadn’t got round to yet.
High on my list were two of the most successful Scottish novels of recent years: the Booker Prize winner, ‘Shuggie Bain’ by Douglas Stuart and the highly-praised ‘The Young Team’ by Graeme Armstrong.
In ‘The Glass Half Full,’ (Luath Press, Edinburgh, 2014), authors David Manderson and Eleanor Yule presented a study of the incidence and significance in Scottish literature, cinema and television of what has come to be called ‘Scottish Miserabilism’. They defined this as ‘. . . a tendency in film, literature, and other cultural output to portray the negative aspects of Scottish life.’
At first sight, these novels might be taken as representing the apotheosis of this tendency. Stuart examines in almost forensic detail the growing up of a gay boy within a dysfunctional Glasgow family, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Armstrong’s narrator gives his account of life as a member of a gang in Airdrie, from his early teens into his 20s.
Both novels make use of the language of everyday urban Scots, making no concessions to the over-sensitive reader. Both describe characters caught up in lives where they have to cope with problems that blight today’s Scotland: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, violence, crime, urban decay and fragile mental health.
However, despite the bleakness of the subject matter, the main protagonists in each novel eventually overcome the misery of their circumstances, and are able to find ways of escaping from the ties that bind them to their pasts.
Powerful fictions that I recommend to anyone interested in contemporary Scottish culture.