Northwords Now Issue 34

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Unspeakable

by Dilys Rose (Freight Books)

A Review by Cynthia Rogerson

There are principles at the heart of this novel which are chillingly relevant to today’s world news.  Historically, times of economic recession have often led to an upsurge of religious fanaticism.  In 1697, it led to the public hanging of a 19-year-old Divinity student for the crime of…not very much at all.  An innocent sacrificed, presumably as a scapegoat to keep the potentially rebellious congregations in line.

This is not a spoiler. The novel opens with the teenager Thomas Aikenhead recalling his childhood as he is being escorted to the gallows. This is followed by all the events which led to this day: family disintegration, poverty, the fortuitousness of a generous guardian.  This is not a daunting journey because Rose takes the reader gently by the hand from the first page, and leads him into the darkest wynds and lanes.  Not only is it dark, but it smells strongly of such a variety of foulness and sweetness, it is difficult to think clearly.  There are sounds too – mysterious and threatening – but Rose is still guiding, so there is also a sense of safety.  And of course, because (like life) no quality fictional reality is made up of purely dark things, Rose also leads us into days of wonder and magic.  There’s the day by the loch, when the sun is shining and the God-fearing folk take a day off God for more ancient pastimes.  And those painfully poignant moments when Thomas thinks a girl finds him handsome.  

The city of Edinburgh itself is, perhaps, as large a character as Thomas.  Many of the buildings and places described, still exist.  That other Edinburgh lies just beneath the city we all think we know.  Yes, no one thinks the past was an easy or safe place, but it is one thing to know this, and another to really believe it.  This novel makes superficial awareness impossible.   

As a prize-winning writer of eleven books, it is not surprising Rose is always in control of this narrative. The Edinburgh she describes is credible and fascinating, her characters are beautifully flawed and mostly likable. The story itself, though gently told, plays out with a brutal inevitability, which begins to seem cruel to fulfil.  Despite knowing how it would end, such is the power of her fictional tension, I was deeply shocked when the ending came.

Why does fiction often affect us more than nonfiction?  In the case of Unspeakable, it might be because while we are happily escaping into the reality Rose has created, our guard is lowered – we forget that most of the story is not made up.  There really was a 19-year-old boy called Thomas Aikenhead, who was incredibly lucky - but ultimately very unlucky.  Rose has paid honour to him with such dignity and clarity and sympathy, it will break readers’ hearts.  Which is the most any reader can ask for, right?