Shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award, a tenderly funny and unpretentiously philosophical portrait of a Glasgow family in turmoil.
Like her compatriot Irvine Welsh, Donovan writes in Scots dialect that gives marvelous savor to her story but is quite easy to read. Unlike Welsh’s junkies and outcasts, her characters are ordinary working folks leading reasonable, responsible lives--until their own yearnings and fate’s whimsical ways take them in unexpected directions. Things begin to go off kilter when Jimmy, a house painter in his 30s who until now has liked his “bevvy” and a practical joke as much as anything, begins spending more and more time at the local Buddhist Centre. His 12-year-old daughter Anne Marie is surprised but willing to tolerate his new religion, but wife Liz is bewildered and increasingly annoyed; she feels left out, and his involvement in Buddhism exacerbates Jimmy’s tendency to leave all the housework and responsibilities to her. When he follows up forswearing alcohol with a unilateral decision to become celibate, Liz accuses him of having an affair, and he moves out. The novel’s first (and better) half delineates with accuracy and wit people’s complicated reactions to change. Though not especially intellectual or well-educated, Jimmy and Liz are both thoughtful and intelligent; his descriptions of practicing meditation and her reflections while cleaning out her dead mother’s house are textbook examples of an author speaking in her characters’ voices without condescending to them. Anne Marie is just as appealing as her parents, and the scenes of her burgeoning friendship with an Indian classmate offer nice snapshots of multicultural Britain. As the plot thickens—Liz gets pregnant, Anne Marie enters a BBC contest with a recording that combines a Latin hymn, Tibetan chants, and her friend singing in Punjabi—the story loses some of its freshness. But its charm remains, thanks to Donovan’s deft way with Scottish speech and warm affection for her protagonists.
Let’s hope the funny spelling doesn’t keep this engaging and accessible tale from the broad readership it deserves.