Novel of the week

When They Lay Bare

Andrew Greig <em>Faber, 322pp, £9.99</em>

It seemed to many readers of Andrew Greig's last novel, The Return of John McNab (1996), that he was setting himself up as John Buchan's inheritor. The page-turning story of pursuits and poaching on the Scottish hills, very much in the Buchan tradition, was also a bold attempt to engage with the politics and landscape of contemporary Scotland. His interest in old-fashioned heroic narratives was no less evident in an earlier non-fiction book about climbing, Summit Fever (1985), in which Greig described his half-reluctant involvement in a mountaineering expedition, recapturing the flavour of the forgotten Auden-Isherwood play, The Ascent of F6.

His new novel, When They Lay Bare, is a departure from these exciting stories for boys - which, though well constructed, were always open to the charge that they had little to say to women. The central character in this case is Marnie Lauder, who suddenly turns up on an estate in the Scottish Borders, setting up camp in a cottage formerly inhabited by her dead mother, Jinny. There she meets the laird's son, a born-again Christian called David Elliot, and puts his vow of chastity severely to the test. The other main characters are equally eccentric: old Simon Elliot, a dope-smoking wreck with adulterous skeletons in his cupboard; and Tat, the untrustworthy estate manager, who clearly knows more than nothing about the circumstances of Jinny Lauder's death. The rumour that she was murdered by Simon Elliot persists in spite of a "not proven" verdict when the case went to court.

Marnie's inheritance from her mother is a series of painted pattern-plates detailing the story of The Twa Corbies, a Border ballad which, to some extent, underpins the plot of Greig's novel. As Marnie examines each of the plates, the narrative switches into Scots, and it seems for a moment as if the action of the book has been anticipated by the painter. In common with the anonymous authors of the Border ballads, Greig has a keen interest in the supernatural, and he represents the Borders as a place where we can expect to find "family feuds, rapes and burnings, chains of betrayal and enduring loyalties, cattle-thieving and summary justice". At the same time this novel insists, through its often puzzling swirl of narrative voices, on the extreme difficulty of working out what is real. How real are Marnie's visions and Simon's ganja-impaired view of the world? Greig sustains his sense of unreality with frequent references to "the Border", both as a geographical region and, metaphorically, as the line between sleeping and waking, past and present, repression and desire, dream and actuality. At times his prose takes on the characteristics of free verse, poetry being another genre in which Greig has published extensively: "The mist was already drawing across the way she'd come through a maze of choices and channels, old stream-beds and swires, drawn on by his yellow head that never turned to look back."

In retrospect his poems may be seen to have prepared the ground for When They Lay Bare, as Greig allows a straightforward story to unfold through a rich mixture of registers and dialects. That his fiction has acquired some of the complexities and ambiguities of his poems can be only a welcome development.

There is plenty to enjoy in this dense and unashamedly literary novel, which seeks to make something strikingly new out of traditional Scots poetry. It seems likely that Greig is trying to widen his constituency at the same time as moving upmarket, possibly seeking to distance himself from the Buchanesque thriller genre. That said, there are still odd examples of boys' stuff in his writing: "Now he cupped and shifted his balls inside rough tweed. Something about high lonely places visible only to the sky, and the thick earth smell, always made him randy and alert, ready for action of some kind." But there is little doubt that he is one of Scotland's major writers, and his work offers a serious alternative to the vomit-spattered fictions of Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner.

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war