|Archive for Big Readers A place for discussing books and all things bookish.
Andrew GreigFrom: LizzySiddal (Original Message) Sent: 9/20/2007 2:50 AM
Len and Tad meet as they travel to their RAF squadron; Stella and Maddy on a bus ride where Stella subs Maddy the fare. The women meet the men at a dance and two romances blossom. So far, so ordinary.
But this is the summer of 1940 and the Battle of Britain is about to rage in the skies.
The story is told in alternating viewpoints - first Len’s, then Stella’s.
And the segues are smooth; particularly so in the first section as Stella fights to remain in control of her feelings and not fall in love with her beanpole pilot. The two narratives simply blend: these are two people caught in feelings (and events) they cannot control.
Stella: “Anyway, though we’d accepted the date, we’d no real intention of going to meet them at the Darnley .At least, I hadn’t. Far as I was concerned, if Maddy wanted a roll under the hedge with our admittedly well-groomed Polish friend, there was no need to drag me along But though I’d only nodded, I felt somehow implicated, and his face had lit up so …..
No, I had other things to concentrate on. I’d keep my head well below the parapet on the romantic front for a while yet.”
Len: “Blokes were talking and laughing but I wasn’t listening. Thinking of how I’d be seeing her next Thursday, God willing. For once there were no worries, no fear. We’re alive till we die, that much is certain. And it’s going to be a scorcher, you can tell.”
The narrative voices and depth of characterisation is wonderful. Stella is educated and slightly worldly wise. Len is younger, inexperienced and working class and Stella constantly compares him with her previous lovers. Whether they would have loved each other at another time is a question raised, but never answered. Tad and Maddy both subscribe to the live for the moment camp and both are separated from their families - Maddy, voluntarily, though we are never made aware of the circumstances. Tad is a displaced Pole, fighting with the British to revenge the wrongs done to his homeland and the atrocities to his own family.
Through Tad, Greig introduces the darker side of the war and the motivations behind why people are fighting. Len and Stella, apparent pacifists, find themselves unconsciously part of the war effort. As the summer progresses, they mull over “what they have become” until, finally, as the Battle intensifies, and their personal losses mount, they move past anger and hatred into we-must-defend-what-we-love mode.
There is much detail about the Battle of Britain and The London Blitz - Stella is on radar watch while Len is a fighter pilot (and there is plenty of action for the boys) - there are also unexpected and poignant themes such as the generation gap between Len and his WWI veteran father, who, disillusioned because “we went through it once, now you’re having to do it all over again“, refuses to discuss either of the wars with his son. There are also thoughts spared for the opposing side; while the Luftwaffe is impersonal, threatening and monstrous, the German pilots, in their (near-)deaths,all too human, flesh and blood, just like the British. Stella invents a ghostly-Fraulein whose experiences mirror her own:
I went on my way, thinking, What are we? We drop bombs on people we don’t know, can’t even see. And we’re sometimes kind to people we don’t know, we wince when we see pain, especially in children. And I know it’s the same on the other side. These same people that dropped the bomb on X (name removed) would in the street of their own town comfort a child with a bleeding knee, soothe and joke until she began to laugh. My opposite number, my ghostly Fraulein, she certainly would.
Welcome respite from the intense pounding of war is provided when Len is granted leave and travels, first with Stella into Wales, and secondly, alone, into the Cairngorms for a few days hiking. And it is here that Len is granted the peace and tranquility he so yearns for. The Scottish countryside is painted masterfully and lovingly by Greig, a Scot and a poet. His prose is fluid and precise, drawing the reader into his pictures and to his characters.
As the Battle of Britain intensifies, so too does the relationship between Len and Stella. Len’s vision for the future:
I have to marry ‘tis woman because whenever I see her now I have this urge to plant, deep and patiently. I can see her face, teasing and laughing and making me blush at my naivety. But if we live through this, and are to live well later, surely something must grow - children, sweet peas, routines and holly-hocks and marigolds. We must grow them to screen off the war years. Only once in a while will we mention it, out on a walk on our own or late when the children are in bed. And I begin to think I see why our parents kept their war to themselves. It was too horrible yet precious, it had gone too deep.”
Whether he gets his wish is, of course, the outcome I have no wish to reveal. I can say, however, that the blurb on the front cover is true: “It will be a long time since a book has made you care so much. ”
I have to wonder why Andrew Greig is not better known. In 2004 he won the Saltire Book of The Year Award for “In Another Light”, the novel which sparked off my current interest in Scottish Literature.
”In Another Light”, much longer than “That Summer”, is set in Orkney and Penang and follows its protagonist, Dr Alexander MacKay, as he follows his father’s footsteps into the past. It’s an examination of how we see the past with contemporary knowledge but also, and more importantly, how we see our parents and their decisions with our adult perspective. Just as involving and intelligent as “That Summer”.
Greig is a mighty fine discovery and I’ve now resolved to read all his novels. Another three for the TBR then.
From: Evie_forever Sent: 9/20/2007 4:07 AM
Thanks for this, Lizzy - I agree that it is a very good book, one where I really did genuinely care about the characters, and was caught up in their story - wonderful mixture of love story and war story.
I have also read When They Lay Bare (is that the correct title...?), which is very good too, darker in a way - I know the Battle of Britain was a dark time, but this one is dark in the sense of being less warm, the characters being less likeable, etc., as well as the dark undertones of the story.
I have been meaning to read Electric Brae for years - and will add In Another Light to my TBR list too.
From: Evie_again Sent: 4/3/2008 2:36 PM
I am now reading Electric Brae, and loving it. Will add more here when I've finished.
I've now read three of his books (well, two and a half!), and it's amazing how different they are from each other, yet all very good - impressive.
From: LizzySiddal Sent: 4/3/2008 11:18 PM
I'm going to treat myself to his new novel "Romanno Bridge" at the weekend. I was given a money-off voucher for Waterstone's which means I can have the new hardback for a mere £5.99. .... Some things just have to be done.
From: Evie_again Sent: 4/4/2008 12:21 AM
They do indeed! I love reading hardbacks.
I will read In Another Light next of his, I think. It's a shame he doesn't get very much press attention, as I think he is a very good writer.
Those who enjoy the novels of Graham Swift might like to try Andrew Greig.
From: Evie_again Sent: 4/15/2008 7:36 AM
I have now finished Electric Brae, and thought it was a wonderful novel - with one slight reservation.
It is essentially the story of a relationship, between Jimmy and Kim, but involves their close friends and family and weaves around issues of love, friendship, trust, loyalty, physical chemistry, consequences of actions, and is really about what it means to know yourself and to love others (love in different ways, not just romantic love). One of the key relationships is between Jimmy and his friend and climbing partner Graeme - rock climbing is a major feature of the book, and acts as a metaphor (that's how I see it, anyway) for the complexities of life - the difficulty, the aspirations, the discipline required, the exhilaration, the danger, thinking you have found a foothold only to have it crumble away, or to achieve the summit through sheer doggedness, luck, the unexpected. The climbing motif is not clumsily done - the parallells, or metaphor, is not blatantly drawn - but it is nevertheless a strong and poetic part of the book. Jimmy and Graeme plan to climb the Old Man of Hoy on Orkney, and this acts as a refrain through the novel.
It begins with Jimmy and an unnamed child playing Kim's Game - and on the tray are various mementos of Jimmy's life. It is a clever way of structuring the novel - in the first part, each chapter revolves around one item on the tray. And of course his girlfriend has, fortuitously, been named Kim. Again, it's not as blunt and unsubtle as it sounds.
So at the start we know Jimmy is looking after a child; it is not until the end that we know who the child is, and how he comes to be looking after her. In between, the narrative moves backwards and forwards, sometimes in the third person, sometimes in the first. The writing is wonderful - muscular and poetic at the same time - and Jimmy's self-discovery is moving, though there is a bleakness about the novel that at times threatens to make it simply too depressing, however sympathetic we are to Jimmy.
Kim is a hugely selfish, totally self-absorbed person, but we learn more as the book goes on about why she is as she is. As a study of how someone can carry on loving a person who brings them pain, it is quite wonderful.
The reservation I mentioned earlier is to do with dialogue. Sometimes it's fine, but often it seems to me a bit forced and not very natural - it doesn't flow as the rest of the book does. This, however, is probably a personal reaction, and I can't find specific examples that show well what I mean, it was just something that struck me as I read, that at times the dialogue just didn't seem to work well.
This is mitigated in part by the wonderful use of Scottish works, even some (untranslated) gaelic in the dialogue, though this is sparingly used. The Scottish atmosphere evoked by the use of language is beautifully done - not overdone, but Greig is clearly someone who relishes words and makes good use of Scottish dialect and slang. I didn't understand all the words, but it didn't matter - some you can work out, some I knew from my time in Scotland, the rest I just read out loud and enjoyed.
It is not a book for the fainthearted or those looking for something heartwarming or uplifting. I would say it is, however, life-affirming in unexpected ways - it is about knowing yourself, accepting yourself, and accepting others, and ultimately those are the most important lessons to learn in life. It is not a bleak book, despite what I said earlier - and despite the often bleak weather and geological descriptions contained in the book! But it is a demanding book, in terms of emotional engagement and in terms of structure - you can tell that Greig is a poet, not just from his beautiful use of language (which is never remotely flowery, but is beautiful in an understated way), but also from the way he structures his story, almost in stanzas.
I don't feel I am conveying what I got out of this novel very well at all, but I do think it's a marvellous novel.
It's almost like Thomas Hardy set in modern day Scotland, but with less melodrama! It is gritty and beautiful at the same time, and I loved it.
From: LizzySiddal Sent: 8/1/2008 10:12 AM
Romanno Bridge (2008)
Sassenachs like myself can sometimes feel a trifle uncomfortable north of Carlisle. Like the time, I took my German friends round Edinburgh castle pretending to be of Teutonic stock because the very Scottish guide, Rab (I jest not), was relishing a little too much his descriptions of what happened to the invading English army as the boiling oil was poured over the ramparts. So it is that, when a character in a novel by a Scottish author says “independence is a slogan, not an option”, I'd better believe there's a nationalistic subtext.
Andrew Greig’s latest novel can on one level be interpreted as a love letter to Bonnie Scotland. As his characters chase around the Borders, the Lochs and the West Coast in search of a missing historical artifact. Greig, the keen mountaineer, describes his country with an observant poetic eye. A couple of examples will suffice.
Grand it was to be driven at decent speed through the thawing Borders, snowdrops bending under dripping trees, flash of yellow from crocuses, breeze punching blue holes through a sky that had been lowered like a dustbin lid over the country from months ….
And when they came upon yet another silent inland lochan, or scrambled the cliffs of The Oa with the western ocean loud below, or walked the Rhinns from Bruichladdich to Portnahaven through one afternoon of dark clouds, rain and brilliant glitter, Leo found himself murmuring inwardly “sweet as, sweet as”, until the words tailed off and there was no comparison left.
But I’m giving the wrong impression here. Greig hasn’t written a geography book, he’s written a thriller in which Scotland is a colourful backdrop. The missing artifact is nothing other than the Stone of Destiny, taken as spoils of war in 1296 by Edward I of England. The history of what happened next can be found here alongside the myth (fact?) that Edward actually confiscated a forged stone.
In Romanno Bridge, the original stone has been hidden away in a secret place ever since, its location known only to the Moon Runners, the custodians of 3 rings, engraved with runes revealing the hiding place. A suicide in Rothiemurchus forest triggers the race to the stone. It’s a case of the 3 contemporary custodians finding the stone before the psychopath with a £20 million commission.
Ah yes, the psychopath. Really, really chilling descriptions of the terror he inflicts. Controlled cruelty always much more frightening than frenzied bloodlust.
On the opposite side of the emotional spectrum is a tender middle-aged romance between a chaste Free Presbyterian policeman and his Canadian girlfriend. Somewhere in the middle of the human ranges are romances of a more modern kind between other life-scarred individuals. Greig as tender and patient of his character’s foibles as he is of the rugged beauty of Scotland.
He looks at them and finally sees it is not that some people are incautious, stupid or simply unlucky, while the rest of us will be all right. None of us will be all right. Mountains, sunsets, good times, bad times, mates, children - nothing endures. Nothing. No exceptions.
Nihilism it isn’t. While the events of the novel trigger existential crises in some of those caught up in the maelstrom, the final message seems to be:
The old life has been kicked into touch, right? Best we can do is catch the new one and run with it.
As with the previous novels I read, Greig paints humanity in true flesh and blood tones. The suspense elements are also excellent - tension building slowly until the crisis point is reached. Historical and geographical backgrounds adding depth and pattern to the book. Romanno Bridge is a palette of colours that could easily clash with each other. But once the correct blend has been reached (and that’s not quite true in the first quarter), the pages keep turning, seemingly of their own accord.
From: castor-boy Sent: 8/17/2008 4:14 PM
Thank you Lizzy and Evie.
I am totally "blown away" by the lyrical prose of Greig. It is so descriptive, for instance, of the Borders that I am tempted to try one of his poetry books.
I have only read When They Lay Bare but I can't wait to read the rest of his work.
I'm assuming that The Return of John Macnab will be set in the Highlands which is where John Buchan's John Macnab was located.
Greig deserves much more press attention - maybe he does in the Scottish press?
As for Romanno Bridge the combination of Scotland and a psychopath in a thriller, made me think of the brilliant novels of Christopher Brookmyre.
From: Evie_again Sent: 8/17/2008 11:32 PM
That's great, castor-boy - I am glad you enjoyed When They Lay Bare - that was the first Greig I read too, and was very impressed. I agree his lyrical prose is wonderful - but so are his characters, especially in Electric Brae and That Summer.
Another thing I love about him is that each of the books I have read so far is really quite different from the others - he seems to want to explore new territory with each novel - yet the writing remains beautiful and evocative and lyrical in all of them, even when what he is describing is harsh, be it an event, human relationships or a landscape.
I agree that he is not well publicised, in England at least - and deserves a much higher public profile.
Sent: 8/18/2008 12:27 AM
He's not well publicised in Scotland either as far as I know, but then I don't read any of the literary press (or the broadsheets for that matter).
Sent: 8/19/2008 3:47 PM
Oh, I forgot about this thread.
I've blogged about Andrew Greig's event at the Edinburgh Book Festival here.
From: castor-boy Sent: 8/31/2008 12:58 AM
When They Lay Bare – Andrew Greig
The setting is the Scottish Border with its history of the Rievers and their violence and feuds.
The story begins with a young woman breaking into a lonely cottage on the land of a local laird.
Why is she here? Is she trying to re-create violence similar to the past? Does she have revenge in mind?
A clue is given at the start with a printing of the famous 16th century Border Ballad ‘The Twa Corbies’.
So this is a mystery, but more than that, it’s written with lyrical descriptions of the landscape.
Not surprising really because Greig has published at least six books of poetry. If only all poets could write novels of such power!
The main characters have pages of interior monologues which tend to stretch out the narrative.
A knowledge of Scottish words and phrases would be helpful; words like ‘dunt’ or ‘louping’ and a phrase like ‘dinna fash yersel’.
It’s a long time since I’ve seen those words – it brings back happy memories of Scott, Stevenson and Buchan.
Thanks to Lizzy and Evie for recommending such a fine writer.
Although That Summer is classed as a Romance novel it could be read as a story of the air battles in 1940. The routine of a flying station is nicely contrasted with the frenzied combat in the sky (at the back of the book are the sources used). The lovers Len and Stella are well drawn against this background.
Once again Greig displays his poetic side when he describes how Len, on patrol in his Hurricane fighter shoots down a Heinkel bomber; I watched the tracers….sparkle and seed bright rosy buds along the fuselage. How they suddenly bloomed into one monstrous rose…Death’s gardener that’s me.This book confirms my view that Greig is a very talented contemporary novelist and I’m looking forward to Romanno Bridge.
I am glad you enjoyed it, Castorboy. It is a lovely novel, I think. Electric Brae remains my favourite Greig novel to date - and for me, far and away the best - but am looking forward to reading more of his stuff.
Copied from the John Buchan topic
Posted: Sun May 10, 2009 10:33 am Poster: Fiveowls
Castorboy, some time ago you mentioned Andrew Greig's The Return of John Macnab and I wonder whether you have had the chance to read it since then. With my memories of my teenage years and being gripped by Buchan's John Macnab I followed your tip and have just finished reading Greig's book.
It's a winner. I loved its pace, its evocation of the Highlands and its people, the character development of the four central figures, and its spellbinding unraveling of a great adventure.
Lifting the story of John Macnab from its original historical setting and revisiting it in the late twentieth century is a great idea and Greig's descriptive powers carry this off superbly. He clearly has great knowledge of the terrain and writes with sharp insight and compassion towards those who people its pages. There is some delicious humour there, great suspense and an undercurrent of serious political issues relating to Scottish land tenure and the ups and downs of relationships between the four adventurers and their other attachments.
I strongly recommend it as a good read. In fact, I read it during the past week while my wife had a holiday in the Highlands, so I made my visit north too.
Thank you Lizzy, Evie and Casterboy for stirring my interest in Andrew Greig. I read That Summer a few years ago and was captivated. More recently, Casterboy recommended The Return of John MacNab, a revisiting of my favourite John Buchan novel. I was so taken by The Return that I've lent it to my sister and immediately bought another copy to read with my wife, following her recent return from the Highlands. I must read more of this poetic author with his great sense of place, love of people and engineering of great suspense.
I have just started Electric Brae and skim-read Evie's comments. Perhaps I wish I hadn't - I like a bit of heart-warming and the first chapters of this don't preclude it. I can see there are things in the backgrounds of the characters, especially Kim, which may be difficult but I had hoped the general tenor would be generally hopeful. Jimmy is a character easy to warm to so I am already gunning for him after about 4 chapters.
I so far don't agree with Evie about the dialogue and indeed had just thought "This way of combining a little Scottish with generally familiar English works well - the Scots words don't prevent you understanding the meaning but help me with the accent and the characterisation and the setting." In general I read everything with a NZ accent, but with these few words (and being brought up by a Scottish grandmother) I can 'hear' the Scottish accent here and like to do so.
It's not a book I necessarily find myself picking up for a quick read, though. I feel it needs concentration and Kim is not a character I specially like, so sometimes it is a bit slow to come to my eyes. Might take me a while to get through it.
PS I found this in a Salvation Army shop when I had left my bag and books behind on our recent trip and had to urgently buy some new books. (Did later find The Boy in Striped Pyjamas was there after all and read it.)
Fiveowls sums up perfectly The Return of John Macnab - a compelling and entertaining novel. It even finishes with an affectionate portrait of Prince Charles in his Goon Show persona. Like Buchan, Greig has the knack of creating characters the reader wants to hear more of in different adventures.
Thanks Castorboy. I was so gripped by The Return of John MacNab I am now underway with Electric Brae and, after very few pages, am finding the characters believable and intriguing. I love the way he unfolds just who his characters are slowly, slowly, dropping hints occasionally and raising questions in the reader's mind by a turn of phrase or small innuendo. And his sense of place is pinpoint accurate.
I have now finished reading Electric Brae and would like to give it something of a review, doing my best to avoid SPOILERS.
The title 'Electric Brae' offers a nice metaphor for the novel. Grieg quotes a piece by H O N MacCaig written in 1927 in which the Electric (or Magnetic) Brae offers a strange illusion, whereby uphill seems to be downhill and vice versa. The characters in Greig’s book also trudge up difficult slopes of lifestyle and relating only to find they are sliding down into grief and misunderstanding. When seemingly freewheeling down happy slopes they find themselves slowed or brought to a standstill by fracturing relationships.
Another subtext to the novel is the image of the Old Man of Hoy, standing as a stark challenge to be climbed and conquered as well as providing a metaphor for the ‘old men’ of the story, the, often dysfunctional, fathers of the central characters.
Greig is masterly in depicting the people who roam through the pages of his novels. He brings to them both a sharply critical eye and a huge compassion. The characters are well delineated from one another and become so believable that I found myself rooting for them to make wise choices, only to be dashed by their folly. And yet they remain endearing, their foolishness and impetuosity becoming somehow explicable as the story unfolds.
The four central characters are Jimmy, an East coast Scot who works on an off-shore oil rig; Graeme, a Glaswegian, painter, climber and political activist; Kim, also from Lowland Scotland, an artist with a Polish father; and Lesley, an Americanised, English sportswoman. The relationships between these four interweave throughout with an admixture of gay and straight sex and a struggle to emerge from relationships dominated by lust into genuine love and, slowly, slowly, a gathering maturity.
I have only read two of Greig’s books (this one and The Return of John MacNab) but find, as well as his powerful evocation of the books’ main personalities, he also produces a wealth of believable secondary characters. So here we have Alison, Gerry, Tess, Mike, Ruth and her daughter Mary, amongst others. Not least, Greig reveals exquisite understanding and tenderness in his depiction of children.
Here’s an extract of an interchange between Jimmy, frustrated in his relationship with Kim, Alison and her husband Gerry. It gives the flavour of Greig’s sharp understanding of human relating, flecked with humour, compassion and strong language. Jimmy speaks first:
‘My heart’s in shreds. My digestion’s scunnered – I can’t even drink whisky any more. I listen to Country music. I’ve become an embarrassment. This is serious!’
Through in the kitchen her man Gerry switched channels on the radio and got Lou Read singing ‘Pale Blue Eyes’. He didn’t have to do that, nor turn it up so clear and loud.
‘Just as well we’ve got some beer in, then’ she said. ‘And careful you don’t knock the pictures off the wall, doing that.’
‘You ask how I feel?’ I groped for an adequate word. ‘Broken-hearted. Ludicrous, isn’t it? There’s nae dignity in it. The truth is, I’m fuckin broken-hearted.’
‘If that’s how you feel, there’s dignity in it,’ she said. ‘And nae need to use language.’
I turned to her with my arms out wide.
‘Christ, Alison, what am I going to do?’
Gerry walked in with a tea-towel over his shoulder. He seemed to be dragging one leg slightly, probably injured himself again playing football.
‘Suffer,’ she said. ‘And keep talking with your friends,’ she added.
‘Good to see you,’ Gerry said. ‘Pain’s what we call experience whose value we ain’t understood.’
‘For Christ’s sake, Gerry,’ Alison said as she wrapped the twins away, ‘the man’s in a right stushie and all you can offer is positive thinking. He loves her.’ (pp. 160-161).
As well as this rich terrain of human interchange (including some delicious Scots’ words), Greig offers the wondrous backdrop of a sense of place, be it the rugged coast of North Berwickshire, the achingly wide sands of Prestwick, the gaunt verticality of Glen Etive or Ben Nevis, or the stark finger of the sea stack, the Old Man of Hoy.
Altogether Electric Brae is a compelling read and I thoroughly recommend it.
I would also recommend this book for the qualities brought out by Evie and Fiveowls:-
Evie “Electric Brae is really about what it means to know yourself and to love others (love in different ways, not just romantic love). The writing is wonderful - muscular and poetic at the same time but I do think it's a marvellous novel.
It's almost like Thomas Hardy set in modern day Scotland, but with less melodrama! It is gritty and beautiful at the same time, and I loved it”.
Fiveowls “The characters in Greig’s book trudge up difficult slopes of lifestyle and relationships only to find they are sliding down into grief and misunderstanding. He is masterly in depicting the people who roam through the pages of his novels. He brings to them both a sharply critical eye and a huge compassion".
The link to the geographical Electric Brae in Ayrshire is on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_Brae
I've recently finished The Return of John McNab because of recommendations here. It was a great read and you are right to praise the characterisation as well as a gripping story line. I shall be looking at the G shelf in the library next time I go. It is unusual to find an author who has an exciting plot line combined with really thoughful writing. Eat your heart out Dan Brown
In Romanno Bridge we meet up with Kirsty Fowler and her co-conspirators from The Return of John Macnab in another spirited adventure set in the Highlands and the Border country of Scotland. They are on a search for the true Destiny Stone or Coronation Stone which had been stolen in December 1950 from Westminster Abbey and then returned. Or had it? Was it a copy – and if one was made could there be others? In the tradition of Buchan the team are part of the search for the Stones, while complicating the plot is a serial killer with a slice-and-dice mentality. But there is no gratuitous horror because Greig, like Gardam, allows the reader to use his or her’s own imagination to do the work.
Greig is credited with creating grown-up adventure literature for today by following the Buchan pattern. In this one he has even brought in a colonial character, Leo Ngatara, a rugby playing part-Maori who comments favourably on the rugged scenery when compared with his beloved South Island. The novel is set in 1995 just before John Major returned the Coronation Stone, or at least a Stone, to Edinburgh Castle. To Greig it is just a symbol, independence or not, because in the end, life is to be appreciated for both the good and the not so good parts.
Copied from the Monthly reads.
Posted: Sun Jan 16, 2011 4:34 pm Poster: Green Jay
In Another Light
A thoroughly absorbing novel in two time strands (well, three really) but with a few things that annoyed me which slightly took the shine off. It's one of those novels where the present-day story is about uncovering a mystery in the past, in this case of the protagonist's late father, and the past narrative is about those events as they unfold. The present day is in wintry Orkney and the past in sweaty, humid, luxuriant Penang in 1930 as the colonial comfort zone unravels.
I unreservedly admired the Penang strand; the modern one strained a bit to be youthful (lots of drug and music references which just remind me of being at school, if you don't "get it" all, you're not really in the popular circles. An author shouldn't do this to his readers.) But the tensions & challenges of living in a small island community were well done, the flickering friendships and rivalries between locals, incomers and the temporaries, there for study or research. Greig's language is always alert and atmospheric, and I like the way his characters think about the big questions in life quite naturallly and touchingly. But too many coincidences, or manipulations, towards the end of the modern-day strand made for disappointment.
I've looked at the descriptions of other novels by Greig on this thread and will definitely be looking out for more. I don't know how I overlooked this writer for so long. As someone else said, it is a pity he gets so little press. I might look up his poetry too, if it's anything like his prose. Or even if it's not (what a daft thing to type!)
All the books of his that I have read have been so different from each other, he is a very skilled writer, I think. I haven't tried his poetry.
Just reading Romanno Bridge, which I saw in the library and pounced on - realising it would have been better to read John Macnab first, but never mind, am absolutely loving Romanno Bridge!