James Robertson: And the Land Lay Still

Here is another book that I think everyone should read. James Robertson is both a poet and a novelist and the one feeds into the other.  And the land lay still is a poetic book and a novel.  It is closely related in the way it affects the reader to the previous blog, To the End of the Land by David Grossman.  The books both weave their magic so that you want to read on, but at the same time you don’t want to end the book – you want to stay with the characters and indeed, they do stay with you for several weeks afterwards.  This sort of writing is truly magical and very rare, honestly.

James Robertson locates us in Scotland, mostly Edinburgh and the surrounding countryside and the West Coast, with a magnificent cast of decent, natural people. Through a young man we meet and discover a much older man, his father – the photographer, Angus Pendereich.  Michael, his son, is curating a retrospective exhibition of his photographs in the National Gallery of Photography.

As Michael struggles to write the curator’s notes to accompany the photographs in the catalogue, he begins to realise how big the gaps are between what he sees and what he knows about his father, and what and who his father has seen through his lens.  The ‘Angus Angle’ as it is called, which is a particular way of seeing slightly at a slant, in fact the mark of a master photographer like say, Cartier Bresson.

In discussion with people who have known him, Michael slowly learns of the lives of the people in the photographs, their individual stories and the unknowing interconnectedness that is the thread that binds all these fragments together in a way that will only be fully revealed at the Private View.

This novel takes a broad sweep through the political and personal landscape of Scotland, its aspirations, independence movements and unfulfilled dreams and Angus, the photographer has been there, slightly involved in all sorts of important moments, taking that telling shot.

And itinerant throughout the book is a Second World War veteran who has returned, married and had a son, but is so deeply damaged that he takes off and effectively disappears, sight unseen, yet visible in the depths of the story, the magnificent wanderer collecting pebbles.

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