Northwords Now

New writing, fresh from Scotland and the wider North
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The Broch by Graham Bullen

Troubador (2021) £8.99

A Review by Mandy Haggith

I haven’t had a television for twenty-five years – there are too many good books to read and too much excellent music to listen to – and although I’m vaguely aware that this means I am missing out on things like drama series, I’ve never found my ignorance of them to be much of a problem, certainly not when reading books. However, Graham Bullen’s second novel, The Broch, is packed with scenes from TV programmes, watched then rewound and watched again. Characters and dialogue, storylines and plot twists litter its pages and each chapter is even headed with quotes from the telly.  I can’t help feeling that there are strata of references that a more screen-savvy reader would be able to pick up. Although the action of the book takes place over a single week, its protagonist, Martin, spends much of the time binge-watching the series that he and his late wife Trish enjoyed together. Having never watched a single episode of The Wire, Battlestar Gallactica or True Detective, I’m no doubt missing what signals they give about the characters who rate them so highly – but hopefully you’re immediately sussing out nuances I’m oblivious to.

As well as TV, Martin is also bingeing on whisky – multiple bottles per day, and not just any old blend, but eye-wateringly expensive rare single malts, plus a hefty number of ‘Jacks’, which he consumes at all times of day, while walking, driving, writing and of course, watching the box. You can guess what’s coming, can’t you? That’s right. I don’t drink the stuff. But I do feel less out of kilter with this dimension of the book, partly because I have to confess to being considerably more familiar with alcohol than with BBC drama, and because as each new bottle is cracked we’re treated to outrageously over-the-top descriptions from Jim Murray’s Whisky Bible. I can almost taste them.

The telly and the drams, along with the ashes of his dead wife, form the basis of a ceremony that Martin carries out each night of this week, which we’re told is the last of his life. We, that’s me and you, the reader of this review, are invited by Martin to spectate the painfully choreographed count-down to his suicide. To witness this he has brought us from his home in the Highlands to a reconstructed iron age broch in Harris, a bizarre, luxury holiday let in which he is literally drowning his sorrows.

His sorrows, of course, fight back. Things happen to disrupt the plan. All that high-octane alcohol fuels chaos. The arrival of a naked waif, who Martin rescues from a beach, threatens to overturn the carefully laid-out path to his final destination. The weather is appropriately dreadful. And all the time, we have to watch as he chews and chokes on the relics of his relationship with Trish.

I hope I’m not giving too much away to you about this book. I wonder if you’re interested yet?  I find I’m adopting the narrative voice of the novel, persistently and insistently addressing, cajoling and questioning the reader: you, me, us; suggesting or asking outright all manner of difficult questions. ‘So I must ask. How is your own relationship with Death? With the dead?’ ‘I hope I’m not prying too much… but how have your own brushes with death been? What have they taught you?’ If you’re ready to ask yourself and try to answer these kinds of questions and if you like being grabbed by the scruff of the neck by a narrator and dragged into the most intimate and painful corners of their private life, then this is a book for you. If you like a high-class whisky, even more so. And if you’re into TV drama and know your Justified from your Breaking Bad, you’re probably going to love it.

The Board and Editor of Northwords Now acknowledge support from Creative Scotland and Bòrd na Gàidhlig.
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