James Robertson’s novel faces quite a challenge, if it is to progress into the next round of my tournament of shortlisted books, given that Nina Stibbe’s Paradise Lodge scored a whopping 42/50. But this is a strong contender, and will fight like a true Scot. So don’t write it off just yet.
As both novels are contending for Bolinger Everyman Wdehouse Prize for Comic Fiction, I shall evaluate To Be Continued using the same criteria as Stibbe’s novel: cover, plot, characterisation, scope and LOL moments.
This cover is a wonder – in fact, it was my favourite cover of 2016. Why? Because it transformed the book into a matching fashion accessory, and redefined the notion of well-dressed for me!
Need I say more?
Douglas Findhorn Elder is about to turn 50. He has just been made redundant, is in denial about the end of his 10-year partnership, and his father has just been moved into a care home. We meet him pondering his crises on a bus journey through Edinburgh on his way to a funeral. Except the bus is stuck in a traffic jam – much like Douglas himself.
He needs an adventure to get himself out of the doldrums, to reignite his life. And his first piece of freelance journalism is about to send him on a trip to a remote Highland estate, with a talking toad for companionship. It is an assignment/ escapade that will give more than enough inspiration for the novel he is failing to write, and will change his life forever.
Roll back a moment there. Did you say a talking toad? Indeed, I did. Mungo Forth Mungo is his name, who acts as Douglas’s confidante, conscience and at times, mentor. Because Douglas needs someone to make him think as he has not thought for a long, long time. He comes into Douglas’s life one drunken evening and leaves when it is time to hibernate – albeit belatedly, because those lengthy adventures in the Highlands require almost toad-ex-machina interventions at times. Thankfully there is enough insect life to keep Mungo’s wits well-fed and sharp!
Douglas himself is a man in the full throes of a mid-life crisis, and although this is his story, he’s a bit of a grey flannel. However, there’s nothing less than a rainbow of subsidiary characters to brighten things up: the harridan ex-partner, the funeral assistant come whisky-bootlegger, the pub musician/alcoholic innkeeper/tee-total estate manager/whisky bootlegger (all different identities of one very mixed-up individual), the 100-year old grande dame of Glentaragar House and her granddaughter – another individual with dual identities.
Tis all very entertaining and just a tad surreal and you need your wits about you to keep up. Reality intervenes in the form of Scotland …
Scope and Setting 8/10
… which is very recognisable in these pages, particularly to those who have sat for hours on a grid-locked bus in Edinburgh (that would be me), or tried to reach remote areas on other forms of public transport (impossible as Douglas finds out). Though when the action hits the glen – emptied of people other than tourists and the inhabitants of Glentaragar House there’s a slight sniff of politicism. Robertson is a proud and patriotic Scot and you can tell that the neglect of the Highlands rankles.
Possibly also the outcome of the 2014 Indyref? The novel is set a few weeks after the that referendum and Douglas Elder’s commission is the first in a mooted series on “The Idea of Scotland”. This strand didn’t enthuse me much, even though Robertson isn’t heavy handed. I can’t begin to tell you about how tired I am of Scottish politics at the moment. Apart from a few dull pages, most of this is a knowledgeable satire on journalism.
The novel’s firmly set within the tradition of Scottish literary history with the plot. full of homage to classics such as Whisky Galore! and The 39 Steps, and, I suspect, many more. Oh yes, those dual identities – Jekyll and Hyde, what else!
LOL Moments 9/10
It takes a while to get going, and there are a few breathers here and there, but generally this is a full-on carry-on adventure. A bit barmy, but there’s enough realism in the mix to keep things grounded. I laughed more in recognition than in hilarity, but I loved, loved, loved the whisky-riff!!! I need to be surprised to LOL, and it says much about me that it took a talking toad to do that! Mungo Forth Mungo’s wordplay is sublime.
Which brings the final score on the door to 42/50. It’s a draw! But there must be a knockout in a tournament of this kind. The judge must cast the deciding vote. And so, because there were times when I found To Be Continued slightly less than enthralling, I declare Paradise Lodge the winner! Ironic isn’t it, the comic novel that did make me LOL doesn’t progress to the next round …