Private Nutshells

Janette Turner Hospital

  • Debatable Land by Candia McWilliam
    Bloomsbury, 216 pp, £15.99, June 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1708 8

There is something unsettling, something quietly provocative of inner debate, about Candia McWilliam’s titles, of which, so far, there are only three. They are attached to slim works that occupy the borderlands between novella and novel, between meditation and narrative, between ScotsLit and literature for which a national tag is irrelevant. And this in itself is unsettling: that a reputation of such substance and brilliance, and so elusive of categorisation, should spring from so few pages and from someone not yet forty years old.

McWilliam’s first novel, A Case of Knives (1988), a salt-and-vinegar romantic comedy for these hectic days of Aids, rough trade, and fanatic animal-rights crusaders, was highly acclaimed. Her second, A Little Stranger (1989), which tilts at the sinister shadowside of the familiar and domestic, reads as though Henry James had updated The Turn of the Screw for the late 20th century. Now in Debatable Land she jousts on against her big windmills: the whys and wherefores of unsettled characters and their off-kilter perceptions and the slippage of their language. She writes, that is, of lives and of ways of seeing and of verbal coinages that have become, quite literally, unsettled, destabilised, no longer at ease in old – or indeed, in any – dispensations; and so her titles give at the edges as soft riverbanks and seashores do, as political boundaries in the marginal countries that interest her are wont to do.

A Case of Knives is a case in point. Are the nouns concrete, metaphorical or abstract? Do they refer to the protagonist’s tools of trade – he is a heart surgeon – or to the legal trial of his knife-armed assailant? Or are they a symbolic allusion to radical severance of many kinds? As for A Little Stranger, even the syntax slides. Is ‘stranger’ nominal or adjectival? Does it refer to the new baby on the way, or to the young child so rapidly turning into someone unknown to his parents, or to the seemingly demure but menacing nanny hired to look after him? Or is it all a little stranger than that? What does ‘looking after’ mean? Are not the structures and vocabulary of ‘childminding’ a little odder than most? Do nannies mind about their status in a family? How should we mind children? Should we not mind them more?

Words and syntactical forms have this way of coming unravelled in McWilliam’s books; they knot and tangle and knit themselves into new shapes. This is serious business, attended to with meticulous wit. ‘Empty words were needed, and Logan had them,’ reflects Alec in Debatable Land, but he nevertheless finds himself, a European confronting the death of a child in a Pacific island, ‘moved by Logan’s finely spoken, sonorous, trite words’. Other speaking artefacts besides language follow the South Sea trade routes and announce themselves in assorted national accents. Cheese, for example. In Tahiti, at exorbitant cost, one can procure a cheese ‘that has travelled the world by three different forms of transport, signed all the relevant forms, hung about in at least two warehouses and remained absolutely unchanged by its experience’. To what code but the Napoleonic could it belong? ‘It is a narrow-minded cheese,’ avers an English voyager in the tropical but very French harbour of Papeete, ‘for narrow-minded French consumers.’ In the same harbour and on the same boat, another character (but one from the Scottish Borders) reflects that ‘the serious-mindedness of British biscuits is not accurately reproduced by any other nation’; but then this character ‘often expressed feelings about the English similar to those Logan held about the French’.

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