An epic story of a mining family at the beginning of the 20th Century by Scottish national treasure William McIlvanney. The Dochertys live in the fictional town of Graithnock in Ayrshire, Scotland. The clan are headed by Tam, a hard man but a good hearted one who lifts up his son on the day he is born and declares that this son Conn, his youngest, will rise out of the poverty he is born into. Instead of using his hands and breaking his back, he will use his brains.
This is a fairly political book about how people cope when they are living in poverty at the beginning of the 20th century. Although it is far more universal than that. Graithnock is a tiny town and remote from the powers sweeping through Europe during WW1, but the influence of these greater forces is felt poignantly by the people in the town.
McIlvanney is a brilliant writer who manages to get the heart of his characters in brief sentences, silences and looks. There is a rawness to how he writes that makes it easy to understand both the Scots and the English in this book. This book has some great female characters in it, but it is a study in maleness, being a man and masculinity overall.
The men form strong bonds based on the shared dangerous work they do down the mines, and they recount drunken stories to each other, stories they all already know well, to forge strong bonds with each other. It’s very moving to witness in the book how men, whose physical strength diminishes need to rely on their children for helping to keep them out of the poorhouse. This is a poignant, powerful and evocative novel that really brings to life a time and a place now lost to the dusts of history – the lives of mining families in Scotland in the early 20th Century. Lives that were difficult and hard, but also beautiful and profound. *****