Naming the Bones
by Louise Welsh
Set in Glasgow, Edinburgh and the isle of Lismore, Louise Welsh’s fourth novel is a tour de force.
Murray Watson is a lecturer in the English department of Glasgow University. As is often the case with the inhabitants of the hallowed halls of academia, his connection with the real world is tenuous, his relationships complicated, his family life non-existent – and he drinks too much.
Since coming across a volume of his poetry at age sixteen, Murray has become fascinated with the life and work of an obscure poet, called Archie Lunan, who drowned in mysterious circumstances thirty years earlier. Now as a serious academic and with access to a meagre archive on Lunan, Murray delves into the poet’s life turning up a minefield of sex, secrets, lies and scandal, which becomes an obsession as the parallels in their lives become apparent. They even look a bit like each other. Murray takes himself from Glasgow to the isle of Lismore and puts up at the home of Mrs Dunn a formidable, sober landlady - in demeanour and dress. Welsh describes Mrs Dunn’s jumble sale clothes with her typical wit, adding: “Protecting the ensemble was a pinny with a map of the cathedrals of Scotland; Aberdeen and Fort William sanctifying her breasts. Glasgow her crotch.” I feared at this point we were going to be introduced to an assembly of hostile locals and plunged into something akin to the cult classic film, The Wicker Man, but mercifully, my fear was unfounded - though the denouement is every bit as dramatic.
What I really liked about this more than Louise Welsh’s other books was the characterisation. The plethora of characters are quite believable - lecherous, wine-soaked lecturers, a scary scar-faced Glasgow hardman, and the elusive Christie Graves, Lunan’s once-girlfriend, a powerful, slightly menacing, character who Murray believes can unlock the mystery surrounding Lunan’s death. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy her other books, I did, but the characters inhabited an underworld about which I know nothing (and don’t particularly want to know). Here we have people that occupy the world above ground, who deliberately cut themselves off from other people and mess up their lives with drugs, alcohol and self-obsession. There’s a clarity and intelligence to it and I’m sure the debate will ensue again as to whether Welsh’s writing can be called literary fiction. Whatever label you want to give it NAMING THE BONES is pacy, atmospheric, sharp, witty and very, very readable.
Louise Welsh talks to Lovereading about what being in a book group has meant to her.