George Douglas Brown - The House with the Green Shutters (1901)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
Oh God, what was I thinking? Why did I sign up to review a book that has a boring title, is more than 100 years old, was a one-hit wonder, and is beloved of crusty old academics who boff on about its model of classical Greek tragedy? It’s got to be mince, yeah? Until George Douglas Brown’s book, Scotland’s rural communities had been represented in a style known as kailyard (or cabbage patch). These were cutesy heather and haggis havens of holistic wholesomeness. Then along came The House with the Green Shutters (the Trainspotting of its day), giving the kailyard a well-deserved kick in the chuckies.
This was an angry young man’s response to the misrepresentation of contemporary Scottish life and the industrial and spiritual changes taking place. Brown skilfully lulls the reader by beginning with the traditional kailyard format and then subverts it with vicious humour into a deliciously ruthless portrayal of small-town petty jealousies. It’s semi-autobiographical, probably based on Ochiltree in Ayrshire, where Brown grew up. He was illegitimate and rejected by his father and this perhaps explains the demonic father figure. The main protagonist, John Gourlay, the town’s feared and fearless merchant, emasculates the townsmen making them merely ‘bodies’: gossipy old women. He despises his own spineless son and when he is unable to adapt to the arrival of the railway his hubris becomes the family’s downfall.
The right book at absolutely the right time, it was a bestseller. Not every bestseller is a classic but every classic is a bestseller and this scores on both points. It’s up there with Balzac, Flaubert and others who created the best of European literature. George Douglas Brown himself called it a ‘brutal and bloody work’, but although by the end there is a body count to rival Tarantino, it’s a fun book. There is a sly, dark humour in every aspect of the characterisation, the dialogue and analysis. Its insight into human nature and the tragedy of wasted potential is what makes it timeless.
So impressed were the press at the time they could hardly believe it was only his second novel. OK, it was a long time ago and the reviews are a bit dusty now but a good book remains a good book and through time can achieve, as The House with the Green Shutters has quietly done, the status of a great read.
Further reading: Love and a Sword (1899) is his only other completed novel, an adventure story for boys originally published under the pseudonym Kennedy King.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.