And the Land Lay Still

And the Land Lay Still
James Robertson
Hamish Hamilton, 688pp, £18.99

Interviewed after the publication in 2006 of his previous novel The Testament of Gideon Mack, which was built around the confessions of an unbelieving son of the manse, James Robertson promised that his next work of fiction would be something "big, sprawling [and] panoramic" - nothing less, in fact, than a history of the "political, social and cultural changes that have occurred in Scotland from 1945 to 1999" (in other words, events from the end of the Second World War up to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament).

And the Land Lay Still, the product of four years of "reading and research", is certainly big and ambitious. Indeed, its historical sweep is even broader than Robertson had envisaged: the novel opens and closes not in 1999, but in the early-21st-century present, with Michael Pendreich, a jobbing photographer holed up in a cottage in the far north of Scotland, trawling the archive of his late father, Angus, a much more distinguished and successful practitioner of the photographic art.

Early in the novel, we see Michael trying, and failing, to write an introductory essay to the catalogue for an exhibition of his father's work to be held in the (fictional) National Gallery of Photography in Edinburgh. He has managed precisely 460 words on "The Angus Angle: Fifty Years of Scottish Life, 1947-97", and they are mostly flat and pedestrian - so much curatorial boilerplate - yet he's writing about his own father. How can it be, he wonders, that he sounds as if he is "writing about a stranger"?

We are meant, I think, to hear, in Michael's anxieties about how to put his father into the story he's telling, the anxieties of his creator; for Robertson is too intelligent a writer not to recognise the challenges and pitfalls that face anyone attempting a book on the scale he is trying here. After all, it is one of the besetting sins of contemporary novelists to put into their works everything they know - as if composing a novel were a matter simply of showing off the quality and depth of your research. And the temptation to do just that must be all the greater if you're writing a state-of-the-nation novel, as this is.

Robertson has said that he "accumulated a fair knowledge and understanding of the history and culture of Scotland" during his involvement in the pro-devolution movement in the 1980s and 1990s. A good deal of it is on display here. But although And the Land Lay Still does contain several passages of clunking historical exposition (helpful, it must be said, to English readers not intimately familiar with, say, the Lanarkshire coalfields, the fate of the Stone of Destiny, or the internecine squabbles on the lunatic fringe of Scottish nationalism in the early 1970s), it is much more than a kind of lightly fictionalised quasi-documentary.

In the final scene, a crank buttonholes the gallery's director to dispute his assertion that David Octavius Hill's painting of the Disruption of 1843 depicts 457 people ("There are 458 people in that painting and I know, I've counted them"). We are invited to find this exchange ridiculous: Robertson is reminding the reader that there is more to history than bald facts and figures, and that the stories people tell about themselves - and which nations tell about themselves, come to that - matter. He is also, needless to say, telling us something about the historical novel.

And the Land Lay Still, which runs to more than 600 pages, is divided into four parts, each exploring the same stretch of history from the perspective of a different protagonist. We meet Don Lennie, a veteran of the Italian campaign in the Second World War, now settled with two children in a Lanarkshire village; Peter Bond, an alcoholic intelligence officer who works freelance on the margins of the nascent nationalist movement; and David Eddelstane, a Scottish Conservative MP with a secret to hide, who keeps his seat while other Tories north of the border are losing theirs. Most memorable and unsettling of all is Don's drinking partner Jack Gordon, a pale, almost ethereal figure, haunted by memories of what the Japanese did to him and his comrades in the jungles of south-east Asia. Much of the artistry here is architectural; the novel is intricately organised, though Robertson also has, like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, a strikingly good ear for the cadences of central-Scottish demotic.

By the end of the novel, the reader sees that Robertson has succeeded in doing what Michael understands he must try to do: that is, "make the connections" between the people in his father's photographs - between a victorious Jock Stein back from Lisbon with the European Cup in 1967 and the men standing outside a Lanarkshire convenience store, or between Mad Mitch of the Argylls and a blurry stranger on the road to Dounreay. It's some achievement.

Jonathan Derbyshire is culture editor of the New Statesman