Actually the title is "An Abridged History of the Construction of the RAILWAY LINE Between Garve, Ullapool and Lochinver; And other pertinent matters: Being the Professional JOURNAL and Regular Chronicle of ALEXANDER AUCHMUTY SETH KININMONTH". Apparently some bookshops mis-shelved it under History, which says little for their acumen, as the words "A novel by Andrew Drummond" also appear on the front cover. But he may well have intended them to be misled, for a major theme of this book is the divide between truth and fiction, and how far we can be sure that what we think fact actually is so.

The story indeed is a melange of "real" history, fictionalised history and downright invention which is near-impossible to disentangle. There really was a projected Garve-Ullapool railway, which was partly built but abandoned for lack of funds. And there was a Melchior Rinck, a German Anabaptist, though he lived some three centuries before the events in which he is here concerned. The Kerguelen islands exist, but were never home to a colony of Scots abandoned there by a heartless captain – though, of course, plenty of Scots during the clearances were duped into sailing for promised lands that turned out to be places of desolation. The revolutionary events of 1897 in Ullapool are pure invention… probably, for as our narrator observes, "it seems likely to be in the interests of Government not to report such events as I believe took place in Ullapool, for fear that similar sedition might be sown in other parts of the land […] This would not be the first time that historical events have been concealed from an en-thralled Nation."

This narrator of ours, Kininmonth, is a railway engineer, a rationalist who ends up embroiled in a religious revival in which he never believes, and a basically conventional, respectable man whose politics, by the end of the book, are on the revolutionary side of socialist. He's a loner with a great curiosity, a certain primness and a dry wit, and he can be, both intentionally and unintentionally, very funny. His story begins in the reality of constructing the line from Garve, hampered by weather, midges and a fancy for one of the navvies' wives: "Wicked thoughts cross my mind, which I can attribute only to the increasing temperature and the scents on the breezes of April". But with the advent of the hedge-preacher Rinck and his friends the Irvines, refugees from the community on Kerguelen, events begin to take a surreal turn. The Kerguelen Scots had stayed two generations on their desolate island, because passing whalers who stopped to revictual constantly told them of dire events in the outside world- the Great Whaling War between Finland and Paraguay, tidal waves in Paris and Rome, plague in Spain. To Kininmonth, hearing their narrative, the truth seems plain: "it was to the advantage of the Norwegians that the poor emigrants stayed on Kerguelen, to stock the whaling ships [..] and for this reason alone, the Norwegians had fabricated such sagas and tales. My spirit grew heavy with thoughts of the wickedness of men against men."

Later, however, he has a surprise. He and James Irvine meet an Icelandic widow in the wilds of Scotland and Irvine condoles with her on the "war" between her country and Turkey. Kininmonth, naturally taking this for another tall tale told by the whalers, is astonished when the woman confirms its truth. This is in fact a reference to the raid on Heimaey in 1627 by Barbary pirates, who kidnapped and enslaved 234 Icelanders. All the Barbary pirates were known in the West as "Turks", and to this day the Icelandic liturgy includes a prayer for protection against the wrath of the Turk. The whalers, presumably, had based some of their tales loosely on real events, but it leaves Kininmonth disoriented: "what if all the other stories told to the people of Kerguelen also had some basis in truth? What if there were wars and campaigns indeed between the most unlikely opponents […] What if the stories we read in newspapers were undiluted invention, as much a fiction as this History is fact?" From this point on, Kininmonth is never entirely sure if any person is speaking the truth, and nor can we be.

This sets up an ending with a device whose use in any novel is very daring, because it has been much discredited. In this case I think it works, because of the kind of novel this is. Even after the end, the writer has not done playing with our sense of what is real, for there are pages of the kind of publishers' advertisements that books of Kininmonth's era used to include. Some are straight spoofs on the improving and juvenile books of the day – "Dick and His Donkey: by the author of Hugh and His Husky", but some are allegedly by characters in the book and would, if real, necessarily subvert the facts as we now think we know them. Some have reviewers' endorsements, like this, allegedly from The Midlothian Advertiser; "A Most Interesting and Clever Book. I was startled at how little I understood".

That made me laugh, as this novel often did, but I suspect Drummond may mean it seriously and indeed it would serve to describe this book – not at all in the sense that it is a difficult read; it's anything but, never forgetting its entertainment function, but in the sense that having read it, we realise that it may be saying far more than first appeared, and that we shall need to read it again to be sure. Luckily, this is no hardship. I found this in a cut-price Aberdeen bookshop; if you have to look in AbeBooks, be assured it'll be worth the trouble.
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Published on October 20, 2013 04:28 • 96 views

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