Podbury (These Tumultuous Years, 2016) explores how the early influence of a hard, unloving Scottish father shapes the successes and failures of his three sons.
Silas McCracken remains largely disliked in the Scottish town of Kinross—an aversion he’s fooled himself into believing to be respect. He marries the gentle and submissive Mary, and the two bear three sons: their twins, Robert and Harold, whom Silas refuses nothing, and the sickly Angus, who receives only his father’s constant scorn. Rob and Harry attend the renowned St. Giles College in Britain, spiteful of their wealthier peers and relying largely on cleverness and guile to succeed. After graduation, Harry travels the world, seeing London, France, postwar Germany, and America, a con man working under the guise of a stockbroker, seducing and robbing women and their families. Less savvy but just as cutthroat, Rob moves to London and falls under the tutelage of a Mafia don in Soho, rising in the organization’s ranks while gaining great power and numerous enemies, threatening the family he loves. Left behind, Angus adopts his mother’s kindness, his hard work and honesty awarding him an apprenticeship, and later a partnership, with the town’s most beloved carpenter, offering him the means to build a family with his first love, Maggie Campbell. These chapters on Angus’ provincial life are the lengthy novel’s strongest: light in tone and good humored, not without conflict or tragedy but neither diluted by its small-town setting. Rob’s and Harry’s “grander” exploits are more focused on violence and subterfuge, invoking aspects of spy and crime thrillers, though once it is clear neither one has any hope (or desire) to be redeemed, there’s only so much perverse enjoyment to be taken from the pair’s wanton criminality. Maggie receives a surprising and significant amount of focus in the narrative as she attempts to make her own way after falling for Rob, who callously leaves her pregnant and in ruin. Regrettably, once she is reunited with Angus, she fades into the story’s background. Like the tale’s commentary on the evils of ego and ambition, its religious imagery is a touch on-the-nose, with the Mary-raised carpenter Angus cast as a Christ figure, while his brothers’ failings represent deals with the devil.
Although simple in message and execution, this tale about three brothers turns into an addictive read.