News of the Dead by the Scottish author James Robertson was published in 2021. It has been longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction 2022. I’ve really enjoyed the previous books that I’ve read by Robertson, but I must admit that I was a wee bit disappointed when I realised that this one really has three threads to the book, I’m a wee bit fed up with that sort of narrative because I find there’s always one storyline that I much prefer and I get annoyed when that one is left off to focus on another one, however, the threads all involve one place, Glen Conach which is a remote valley in Angus, the north of Scotland.
Supposedly Glen Conach was named after an early Chrstian Pictish saint, a hermit called Conach, but the book begins in contemporary times when young Lachie, an eight year old boy visits his elderly friend Maja. Lachie’s a bit worried that he might have seen the ghost of a young girl, and he has to tell Maja about it, maybe she can explain what it was.
“To tell the story of a country or a continent is surely a great and complex undertaking; but the story of a quiet, unnoticed place where there are few people, fewer memories and almost no reliable records – a place such as Glen Conach – may actually be harder to piece together. The further into the past you go, the more you feel you are journeying into a strange, unknowable region. The hazier everything becomes, the more whatever facts there are become entangled with myth and legend. And when you return to the present, it may seem that fact and fiction were never that discrete from one another after all.”
The time loops back to 1809 when Charles Kirkliston Gibb is writing his journal at Glen Conach House. He’s a bit of a conman really, he relies on being able to talk the owners of grand houses into allowing him to stay with them while he does research in their libraries. Otherwise he would be starving or would have to live off his poor widowed mother.
This time around he’s doing research into the life of Saint Conach and needs to read the Book of Conach, one of the many books in the very good library at Glen Conach House. He plans to spin his research out until he can blag his way into another grand house, but nothing goes to plan.
This is a great read, actually I’ve just read that it has won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, which was announced last week. I’m not at all surprised.
On a personal note I must say that James Robertson seems to be a ‘good guy’ as he took part in the campaign to stop Fife Council from closing 16 local libraries some years ago. He actually turned up at meetings, but it was all to no avail, even with Val McDermid and Ian Rankin weighing in too, the decision had already been made I’m sure.