Hame by Annalena McAfee

Hame by Annalena McAfee

Title: Hame 

Author: Annalena McAfee 

Review by Robert Selby

Grigor McWatt, the hero of Annalena McAfee’s hefty novel Hame, is a conflation of at least four literary characters: the Scottish poets George Mackay Brown and Hugh MacDiarmid, Welsh counterpart R.S. Thomas, and the Scottish writer and naturalist Gavin Maxwell.

Like ‘his friend MacDiarmid’, McWatt is an avid Scottish nationalist who cites ‘Anglophobia as his hobby’, who uses poetry as a means to help shore-up an identity for Scotland distinct from its southern neighbour’s. Like MacDiarmid and Brown he is part of a famous Edinburgh circle of hard-drinking poets and, like Brown, has a relationship – of sorts – with an alcoholic (Brown’s Stella Cartwright becomes McWatt’s Lilias Hogg). McWatt is reclusive, living mostly by himself on the tidal islet of a fictional island – Fascaray – off the west coast of Scotland. His reputation – like that of R.S. Thomas – borders on the misanthropic, especially, of course, towards English incomers. Also, like Cardiff-born Thomas in north Wales, despite his bluster McWatt is himself an interloper, apparently having originated from the Lowlands and never mastering the Gaelic still used on the island.

Another debt to Maxwell is McWatt’s war service in the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an SOE training camp being what first brought him to Fascaray in 1942. McWatt stays on after the end of hostilities, living self-sufficiently, kept afloat by the royalties from a folk ballad he penned called ‘Hame Tae Fascaray’ (covered by many including The Incredible String Band, Dylan and KT Turnstall), and, like Maxwell and his otters, keeping a half-feral menagerie. A photo taken in 1981 shows:

…the ‘Bard of Fascaray’ aged sixty, in his late-middle period – he still had more than three decades of writing life to go – squinting sceptically at the view, a fat sleek-haired otter in his arms and a Border collie at his feet. McWatt is a grizzled, kilted figure with fierce blue eyes blazing under a lofty brow. A briar pipe is clenched between his teeth and tendrils of unruly grey hair escape from a beret, which he wore […] ‘in tribute to the Auld Alliance’.

Caricature

McWatt, then, becomes a caricature in his efforts to embody resistance against Fascaray’s absentee English laird who keeps his tenants in squalor, successive Anglocentric governments at Westminster, and the shooting parties up from London for what McWatt calls ‘a spot of recreational colonialism’: ‘The Sassenach continues to plunder our resources and traduce our people.’

Many of McWatt’s poems appear in full in Hame and – probably out of convenience for McAfee, who of course had to pen them – his oeuvre consists of poems written ‘efter’ more famous forebears and ‘reimagining’ them into Scots. Rupert Brooke’s ‘The Soldier’, for example, becomes ‘The Sodger’: “Gin Ah shud dee, ween anely this o me, / That there’s some neuk o furrin lea / That is aye Scotland…”

McWatt’s defence of this simple translating is to quote Max Weinreich: ‘A language is a dialect with an army’. He is carrying out a ‘literary Land Raid, seizing a few acres of the abundant miles of English verse, staking them off, recultivating them and returning them to the people of Scotland’. In addition to regular examples of McWatt’s poetry, there are passages from his The Fascaray Compendium, an exhaustive, multi-volume diary containing meditations on Scotland’s disposition, inventories of Scots words and the island’s flora and fauna, and – at the novel’s end as an appendix – traditional local recipes.

Scotland in depth

Novelists are often reminded to carry their research lightly, but McAfee – of Scots-Irish parentage and fluent in Lallans – has bravely, admirably gone all-in with hers, using McWatt and his island as a means by which to explore Scotland in depth, from the 1707 Act of Union through to Donald Trump’s controversial golf courses. The inevitable consequence of this ambition is that the personalities beyond McWatt come second to it, and are thinly-drawn, even that of his erstwhile lover Lilias Hogg, who appears only via increasingly maudlin missives kept in the McWatt archive. Hame is less a novel than a door-stop literary biography and, like most of those, of uneven interest. But Hame differs in that its subject is fictional, so the reader lacks the same resolve to plough on through less captivating passages purely for educational purposes: the reader can find themselves starting to skip the poems in Scots or the Compendium’s extracts.

The thinly-rendered nature of the other characters is such that this review is yet to touch on the fact that McWatt died of old age in early 2014, and the book is set later the same year, when Canadian of Scottish parentage Mhairi McPhail comes to live on Fascaray with her nine-year-old daughter Agnes, funded to open a McWatt museum, prepare the Compendium for publication and write McWatt’s biography. Mhairi and Agnes must adjust to a life far removed from their previous one in New York: ‘I know we can survive in a world without quinoa, arugula and cilantro, but will it be any fun?’ Mhairi’s narrative has little room to breathe, even in 575 pages, so that the novel’s revelation, when it finally comes, leaves us largely unmoved as to how it will affect her.

Review by Robert Selby

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