An award-winning Scottish author sets his coming-of-age story in the U.S. South, where a father and son on holiday from rural Scotland discover life can be as wrenching as death.
Murdo is nearly 17, as he often says, for 16 sounds much younger. He’s just shy of official adulthood, a time when it’s hard to meet expectations while seeking whatever self seems right. He still feels deeply the recent death of his mother from cancer and his sister’s death from the same malady seven years earlier. On the trip to a small Alabama town where relatives have settled, it’s soon clear Murdo yields easily to distractions and nettles his fretful father. When the boy’s wandering mind and body cause them to miss a bus connection, Murdo meets an African-American family and makes an impression playing the accordion, his regular instrument in a band back home. He slowly comes to envision a possible future with music in America that sounds miles better than his father’s agenda of schlumping back to Scotland and repeating a year of school because of poor grades. Kelman (A Lean Third, 2014, etc.), who won the 1994 Booker Prize for How Late It Was, How Late, puts his skill with interior monologue to work here, delivering a lot of the book through Murdo’s thoughts—which can be delightful and a bit tiresome. Still, they offer intimate access to a young man facing huge choices amid new family situations, cultural oddities, and his father’s constant lectures on poor manners. Their shared pain, efforts to understand each other, and slow acceptance of inevitable change are beautifully rendered. Kelman also conveys a gifted artist’s keen sensitivity to music as a treasured craft and maybe another kind of family.
A rich tale of family, dislocation, the joys of creativity, and the torment of painful choices.