Lewis Grassic Gibbon - Sunset Song (1932)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
I read Sunset Song first when I was 16 at Inverness High School. I picked it up grudgingly because it looked like a girls’ book, like we were being made to read a soppy classic; it had a line-drawing of a windswept girl on the front which had put me off considerably. I started it resentfully, and became more and more amazed. It was about near where we lived. At that point nothing else was about near where we lived. Chris Guthrie, the main character, wasn’t just Scottish, she was actually a Highlander who, astonishingly, liked books. It sounded like nothing else I’d ever read, and at the same time sounded weirdly like the northern-Scottish-English words and syntax we all helplessly spoke. I read way past the place we were supposed to read to for school, and by the end of the next day I’d finished the book.
I’ve just re-read Sunset Song, and its great gripping hybrid of melodrama and realism has left me scorched. There’s Chris again: the self split by country and language; the book-lover who’s also totally sensual, regardless of both the dark, abusive religion of her father (and forefathers) and the she’s-no’-better-than-she-ought-to-be community all round her. And while we’re talking about a sense of liberation, Grassic Gibbon’s language in the Quair freed me to think language could do anything and everything, could be poetic and realist and dark and soaring and local and strange all at once, with sentences longer than breath; but still all about breathing, or how the heart works.
Its real technical (and democratic) achievement is his use of ‘you’ to mean so many things. It means the protagonist, Chris; it means the communal voice, the local folk voice; it means, and includes, all its readers; it signals an openness in the face of things more usually kept closed: selves, communities, localities. Not that Grassic Gibbon isn’t sharp to a too-sentimental reading of his folk-voice: it celebrates the goodness of folk but equally the nastiness and harshness.
Reading Sunset Song this time, I was actually thanking goodness for the comic spite at the centre of its communal voice, a relief from the almost untakeable adolescent richness of this first book of three. It goes for the emotional jugular. It has to; this is how lament works. This is the rightful rich ceremony of loss after the war and the end of a kind of innocence.
Further reading: Cloud Howe (1933) and Grey Granite (1934) are the further installments in the Scots Quair, which take Chris to the cold, hard city of Aberdeen.
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