Friday 4 January 2008

Book Review: Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

I picked up this book from my local library in a rush, attracted by the declaration that it had been voted “ Scotland ’s Favourite Book” and not having read anything termed “Scottish literature” before.

To begin with I found the book hard to get into and after a few pages put the book down ready to give up. On picking it up again a day later I was hooked. The book is written in a heavy Scot’s dialect using words that are not common in English. The flow of the book is also different, less structured than a traditional English novel, with sentences running into each other. All of these things should make for awkward reading, however I got so involved with the story that I tended to skim over passages of the book that were difficult to get a grip on. I also found that by about half way through the book you get into its flow and it suddenly seems a much easier read.

The story revolves around a young woman, Chris Guthrie, from a highly dysfunctional family, moving into a farming settlement. It depicts her love and attachment to the earth and the farmer’s way of life, to the extent that she is willing to give up her career and dreams to help the farm survive. It takes us through the deaths of her family members and the emigration of her brother, her marriage, the birth of her child and the losses she suffers as World War One breaks and affects even her remote community. By the end we see the loss of the old way of Scottish rural life and the breakdown of the community making way for a new kind of existence for people.

You would think with such themes that the book is depressing, but a very bawdy sense of humour runs through the book, preventing it from becoming too sad. The characters are engaging and easy to sympathise with despite or perhaps because of their faults and often strange behaviour.

It’s hard to believe that the intense and realistic portrayals of childbirth and the awakening of sexuality in a young woman were written by a man and this is a testament to Gibbon’s skill as a writer.

This book was not easy reading and I occasionally lost track of what was happening, but I enjoyed its humour and absolute irreverence towards authority, organised religion and the hypocritical moralising of the self-righteous. I also got a very enchanting sense of a land and people I feel I didn’t know very much about.

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