Campbell triumphs with unique double publication
Roger Hutchinson, Review on Books, West Highland Free Press Friday 4 October 2013
Girl on the Ferryboat’ is an exceptionally good novel. It is among the
best pieces of narrative literary fiction to have emerged from Scotland
in the 21st century, in any language.
The last qualifier is
necessary because ‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’ is unique in more than one
sense. It has been written by Angus Peter Campbell and published
simultaneously in English and in Gaelic as ‘An Nighean air an Aiseag’.
Gaelic literature, particularly poetry, has of course also been offered
by its author in English, and much English writing has been translated
into Gaelic. But this is the first time that a full novel has been
prepared and released in both languages at the same time.
It is an
extraordinary achievement, by the increasingly excellent and
adventurous Luath Press (who have even given the two versions two
different covers), and by Angus Peter himself.
majority of us find the prospect of writing even part of a good novel in
just one language inconceivable. Angus Peter Campbell insists that
neither version of ‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’/’An Nighean air an
Aiseag’ is a translation of the other. They are, necessarily, two
separate books because “when you write the same story in two different
languages it becomes two different stories.”
Which means that those of you out there who are literate in both Gaelic and English have a double treat in store.
have recently struggled here with the boundaries of “literary” and
“genre” fiction. ‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’ is the former because it is
beautifully written – it is literature – and because it deals with
ideas as well as plot.
But just as the literary writer Jane Austen
wrote nothing but romantic comedies (never forget that ‘Bridget Jones’s
Diary’ was a late 20th century upgrade of ‘Pride and Prejudice’) so can
‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’ be read simply as a love story. Or rather,
a story of love and loss. If that sounds familiar, if so much good and
bad writing in all genres seems to be about love and loss, it possibly
might tell us something about we might hesitantly call the human
‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’ is about love and loss, and
not only the love and loss of people. Inanimate objects are loved and
lost. Ways of life are loved and lost. Cultures and languages are, as we
know very well in the north-west of Scotland, also loved and lost.
the beginning of the novel a precious violin is lost by a young woman
making her way home from Edinburgh to Mull. She continues her journey in
some despair. Sailing up the Sound of Mull she crosses on a gangway a
young man who is on his way back from university to Uist. They exchange
just two short, apologetic sentences, but each is struck by lightning.
being the olden days in the Highlands (well, the late 60s or early 70s –
she is reading a Thomas Pynchon novel) neither the boy nor the girl
makes a forward move. They continue on their way, she to Calgary and he
Then, while never quite forgetting one another,
they live their lives. In this long central section ‘The Girl on the
Ferryboat’ deals chiefly with the life of the young man. He embodies
something that might be said of Angus Peter Campbell: you can take the
boy out of South Uist but you will never take South Uist out of the man.
are offered his precious younger days, when all the peat banks were
worked, when the machair crofts were alive in ones and twos and threes
with active agriculturalists, when new clinker-built boats were carved
and launched, when of course the air was alive with both birdsong and
Even then, even 40 years ago, some can hear the beating of
the wings of time. “The day will come,” one man says, “when we’ll all
be strangers and we won’t believe a thing.”
It was somehow odd to
see one of Scotland’s best and most gentle book reviewers vaguely
mystified by ‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’s’ “digressions into proverbs,
mythologies and folk stories,” even though he did accept that they were
central to the novel.
There are in fact very few “proverbs,
mythologies and folk stories” in the book – fewer by far than you will
find in the average piece of popular Highland non-fiction. It is a
thoroughly modern piece of work. It is possibly not recognized in other
parts of Scotland how current and relevant such cultural adjuncts as
proverbs and stories remained in South Uist, among other places, until
so very recently, until yesterday.
Do they meet again? Do they consummate their long, absent love? Do they live happily ever after? Is the violin ever found?
You don’t expect me to tell you that – read the book!
can however leave you with the tone, the gorgeous bittersweet tone, and
let you guess what kind of loss is described in this paragraph from
‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’:
“How locked into time we are, as if
nothing happened except that which happened to us. What we heard and saw
and felt. As if those little Iron Age people had never stared at the
crescent moon rising over the hill and is if there wasn’t a time when
there were different maps or no maps or pointers or schools and all the
girls slaved from morning till night and all the boys went off to war.
There’s Easabhal which never had a name until the Vikings came. All
those beautiful maps have fallen off the wall, and I can hardly name
anything right around here any more...”
‘The Girl on the Ferryboat’, by Angus Peter Campbell; Luath Press £12.99