Hame by Annalena McAfee: A Bonsai Braveheart
Convincing. That’s the word. Hame by Annalena McAfee is less a novel than an elaborately plotted and convincing hoax to gift Scotland a brand new Braveheart. In short, it’s a hoot.
Archivist Mhairi McPhail needs to get out of New York and away from her failing marriage. There’s a job on offer on Fascaray, the remote Scottish island home of her ancestors.
An invigorating paradise for those of us of a Spartan disposition.
Mhairi packs up with her nine-year-old daughter and sets out for paradise, ‘Madonna and Child in Wet Anoraks with Sick Bag.’
Grigor McWatt, poet and political activist, best known for his rousing rebel anthem, Hame to Fascaray, has passed away, aged 93. He leaves behind his poetry, his essays and polemic letters to the local newspaper, a small cache of personal correspondence and a monumental stack of notebooks filled with more than 8 million words, handwritten in fountain pen, detailing the history, culture, folklore, flora and fauna of Fascaray.
Mhairi’s job is threefold. In addition to setting up a museum in the poet’s honour and writing The Granite Ballad,a formal biography of McWatt, Mhairi must wade through his vast notes, edit them, index them and usher into print his final publication, The Fascaray Compendium.
It’s not long before Mhairi is asking herself if she really wants
...to spend the next two years alone with my daughter, sequestered in a remote corner of the planet, serving as handmaiden to a dead poet, accidentally famous for a single pop song which he disowned, a reclusive graphomaniac who might have loved the natural world but, from everything I’ve read, didn’t care much for people?
Mhairi’s personal diary of her progress, adjustment to island life and relationship with her daughter provides the narrative but Hame is a collection of diverse writings. Chapters from The Granite Ballad tell McWatt’s life story, so far as it’s known, in a bone dry academic style. McWatt’s poems, letters and essays are sampled. Excerpts from The Fascaray Compendium include such fascinating gems as an inventory of the mammals of Fascaray and a list of the Scots words for snow. There are even a few recipes.
Recipes, for chrissakes – I nearly chucked the job on the spot.
I was disappointed that Mhairi did not share my own fascination with food in literature but, to be fair, they are not the most appealing of recipes. ‘Fish Piece’, for instance, consists of tinned sardines sandwiched between two slices of buttered bread and scattered with a packet of potato crisps. The Hot Toddy (whiskey) recipe, mind you, is a gem.
McWatt’s poems are Scots language ‘re-inventions’ of the greatest poetry of the English language. Thus Yeats’ ‘When you are old and grey and full of sleep’ is transmogrified into ‘when ye’re an auld grey bauchle doverin ower.’ Listen, I’m Irish, I’m allowed to laugh.
Hame is a big book and a slow starter but the meticulously crafted sense of authenticity, draws you onwards. There’s a sense, at the beginning, of setting off on a long hike up a big hill that you’re fairly convinced will yield a spectacular view.
There’s a hint of intrigue in the blank page which is McWatt’s youth. There’s a tragic tale of woe to be unearthed from the letters of Lilias Hogg, McWatt’s thwarted lover, and there’s a curious ambiguity in the islanders’ attitude to their deceased bard.
The author gives just enough away to make you need to know the rest so that you have no choice but to join the archivist in her research, wade through the source material and seek the hidden treasure. This is no page-turner; it’s a steady plod. But the laughs, when they come, are big raucous guffaws. McAfee delivers a punch line in the rael style of a seannachie. She seems to have had a bit of fun playfully incorporating the Clan McEwan (McAfee is married to author Ian McEwan) and her handling of the golf resort building American millionaire is nothing short of hilarious. The book makes you work, just a wee bit, but the reward is a satisfying sense of achievement, as if you really had climbed that hill and yes, the view is worth it.
McWatt, it turns out, is not much of a poet but he stands up and shouts for the islanders, for generations of Fascaradians living small lives, stoic in the face of hardship and tragedy.
Fascaray is in all ways a miniature Scotland, ‘a bonsai Scotland.’ A community of people with a rich culture and insular sense of identity defend their home against environmental threats, economic uncertainty and the ancient enemy, the Sassenach (English) invader.
Grigor McWatt, ‘a professional curmudgeon on matters Caledonian,’ is the voice of, not just fictional Fascary but, actual Scotland. Mc Watt summons the spirit of his ancient ancestor who fought alongside William Wallace. He writes passionately in support of a devolved Scottish Parliament and in defence of the beleaguered Scots language. To those who called for the elimination of Scots in schools he replies;
Shut yer geggie, ye wee nyaff, an awa an bile yer heid.
I should add that the book comes with a Scots glossary.
At the start, I felt much like the islanders, mostly ignoring McWatt’s poetry, and wondering what the hochmagandy he was blathering on about. By the end, warmed by my hot toddy, I was on my feet, looking around for rabble-rousing company, ready to raise my voice and shout for FREEDOM!
Buy Hame here.