Javascotia by Benjamin Obler
|Javascotia by Benjamin Obler|
|Genre: General Fiction|
|Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis|
|Summary: This was a sharp, satisfying, occasionally hilarious and always memorable read. The American hero lands in the alien culture of Glasgow to research coffee drinking and lands up in love and a motorway protest. You will definitely recognise Glasgow.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 416||Date: March 2009|
|Publisher: Hamish Hamilton|
Written by newcomer Benjamin Obler, the story is told in the first person by Mel, sent to Glasgow to research coffee establishments for an ambitious American company. A foreigner who isn't a tourist is in a privileged position. Evidently Benjamin Obler spent enough time in Glasgow in the 1990s to amass a picture of the city, observed with the sharp acuity of an ethnographer at work. Here is the familiar of a major Scottish city made strange for us, just as surely as the strangeness of Glasgow will be made familiar to Americans. There were lots of wry smiles of recognition at his witty observations; Obler's takes on students, green protesters, parents, sex appeal, newly-married couples, bank accounts, renting, B & Bs, and, er, coffee appeared so thick and fast, I had to sip carefully to make sure I didn't miss anything.
The author clearly loves words and plays throughout with the dialect and contemporary slang. I mostly find attempts at dialect irritating, but this speech is so accurately represented, I can hear my Glaswegian friend speak the lines. Here, language is a sustained reflection on the hero's integration into another society. If you have lived abroad, you will know that sharing English as a first language is a superficial similarity: you are still a stranger in a foreign country. As he eases himself into Scottish life, Mel sees both home and foreign country with a life-changing objectivity.
Mel seems quite old when the story opens, because he's already been married. It turns out he is only in his early twenties, so my sense of a rite of passage novel is more accurate than it first seemed. Mel tangles with some motorway protesters, (do you remember Swampy, c.1996?). He reminds me of many young male heroes: self-deprecating, border-line feckless, disaster-prone, highly critical of his parents, yet ever-honest in his reportage. Soon I'm on tenterhooks each time he tries his credit card, in case it doesn't work. Mel has more good qualities than he recognises in himself, and I wanted his work assignment and love life to succeed.
The author has a disconcerting habit of chucking in little snippets about the future, from which I glean that Mel is now a writer developing a screenplay about the past. I'm not sure what that extra layer of time adds, other than a feeling of intricacy.
Once hooked into the Glasgow characters, it seems like Obler is wandering off course, when he returns to America in not so much a flashback as a great dollop of history. Retrospection can signal a slow down in pace, and I have been known to leapfrog through a book ignoring flashbacks entirely. After a while, I realised that the reader is being lead confidently through a maze. Meticulous observation of Glasgow is only one layer of this story. In exploring his past, Mel gropes towards some general truths about ordinary families. This leads on to some unexpected twists and ultimately, a well-knit and satisfying tale of a boy rejecting his family values, growing into a man accepting himself and his family as 'good enough'.
Don't be put off by the bland cover design, which I thought a poor advertisement for the vibrant novel within. No, American friends, Glasgow is not one small croft in the Outer Hebrides, it is a demographically diverse city with half a million inhabitants. Hopefully, Benjamin Obler is prowling round another location notebook in hand, right now, because I'm already looking forward to his next book. Thanks to Hamish Hamilton for sending us Javascotia.
I don't know about you, but first-timers have produced some excellent reads for me lately. Perhaps because it's so difficult to get into print, the calibre of new authors at present seems exceptionally high. Other debut novels I've reviewed recently with admiration include: Devotion by Nell Leyshon, Black Rock by Amanda Smyth and The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles.
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