Other Things

J.I.M. Stewart

  • Soor Hearts by Robert Alan Jamieson
    Paul Harris, 166 pp, £6.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 86228 072 9
  • The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon
    Hodder, 240 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 340 33228 X
  • Cathedral by Raymond Carver
    Collins, 230 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 00 222790 8
  • The Cannibal Galaxy by Cynthia Ozick
    Secker, 162 pp, £7.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 436 35483 7
  • The Collected Works of Jane Bowles introduction by Truman Capote
    Peter Owen, 476 pp, £10.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 7206 0613 6
  • Let it come down by Paul Bowles
    Peter Owen, 318 pp, £8.95, January 1984, ISBN 0 7206 0614 4

An inexpert but frequently impressive first novel, Soor Hearts is set in Shetland in the early years of this century. Magnus Doull, having sailed before the mast for ten years, returns to the fishing village from which he had fled under suspicion of having murdered Thomas Pole. Nearly everyone believes him guilty, since the two young men had been seen to quarrel. Both had been drinking heavily for a fortnight, and when Pole was found ‘with his head crushed under a fearful blow’ Doull took fright and bolted from the island. Whether or not it was he who killed Pole, he can’t remember. For a time he is allowed to settle down in the family croft with his widowed mother, Meenie Doull. Meenie has the ‘sight’, reinforced by a pack of Tarot cards given her by a gipsy. She spends much time in probings of the future. She reveals to her son that a girl called Nina, who had borne him a still-born child after his flight, is now the village harlot, and that Isabella Agnes, Pole’s widow, nurses a thirst for vengeance. He seeks a reunion with Nina, but she declines it and leaves the island. He attends a church service, and is fulminated against by the minister from his pulpit. Magnus makes a spirited reply: ‘You call this da House o’ da Lord. Pah! It is da House o’ Oppression. A tool of da ruling classes to keep da poor fae rebelling ... ’ This outburst is injudicious. The villagers are affronted. Further incensed by the law’s delays, they seize Magnus and lock him up in a shed. Isabella, who knows that witches and persons possessed should be burned, not hanged, sets fire to it. Meenie hastens to the rescue and is drowned on the way. Everybody believes that Magnus is dead, but in fact he escapes through the roof of the burning building, and departs for New Zealand.

In a prefatory note Robert Alan Jamieson calls his book ‘a yarn’, and if the yarn doesn’t read too convincingly it is perhaps because he is chiefly interested in other things: the face of external nature in Shetland, and the quality of life – narrow, enduring, heroic – exhibited by ‘men and women squeezing out a basic existence from tired soil and cruel sea’. Here Mr Jamieson writes sensitively and well, with a sharp precision of imagery that gives promise of more considerable achievement as his art matures.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil also has arson in it. Ruth, who is six foot two inches tall and very plain, is displeased with her husband, Bobbo, because he has taken to going to bed with Mary, who is small and pretty and a successful writer of romantic fiction. Matters bubble up at a family dinner party: ‘Nicola kicked the cat, whose name was Mercy, out of the way, and the cat went straight to the grate and squatted, crapping its revenge, and Brenda wailed and pointed at Mercy, and Harness became over-excited and leapt up against Andy in semi-sexual assault, and Ruth just stood there, a giantess, and did nothing, and Bobbo lost his temper.’ When the dinner party breaks up, Bobbo denounces his wife as a she-devil. She decides to be a she-devil, which means to want revenge, power, money, and to be loved and not love in return. So after what appears to be a symbolic initiation contrived with a dirty old man in a park, she burns the family house to ashes, taking care to engineer such appearances of negligence as will deprive Bobbo of any compensation from an insurance company.

Painstaking and ingenious further acts of vengeance upon Bobbo and Mary occupy the rest of the story. Mary has a mother (‘a part-time whore of a mother’) whom she has ruthlessly dumped in a disagreeable Home for aged persons; she contrives that the smelly old lady shall go on a visit to her daughter and then be refused readmittance to the Home on the score of an incontinence which Ruth has cleverly faked. Bobbo is an accountant. Ruth manages to insinuate herself covertly into his office and cook and confuse his books so successfully as both to build up a large private fortune for herself and to land him, through machinations with a judge, with a long spell in gaol. There is a great deal of this sort of fun, diversified with various sexual high jinks, as when the judge who sentences Bobbo binds Ruth ‘hand and foot to the bed, beating her with an old-fashioned bamboo carpet-beater’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in