I had meant to read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song whilst living in Glasgow. Published in 1932, the novel has been voted the best Scottish book of all time. However, after three years of life in the city, I never got around to it, for some reason I cannot quite pinpoint. Fast forward almost two years, and I managed to find a discounted copy of Sunset Song online. It perhaps did not give quite the same experience to read this during early spring in England, but I was keen enough to meet the heroine of the piece that I picked it up almost as soon as it arrived.
Sunset Song focuses on a young Scottish woman named Chris Guthrie, a bright student who has to put her ambition on hold when her family moves from Aberdeenshire to a rather remote farming community. She is fifteen when this occurs. Soon after they arrive, her family begins to disintegrate. The naive and rather innocent Chris can feel that things are going wrong, but cannot quite understand their gravity. She is at the mercy of the land, and also of the people around her. Soon after they move, the omniscient narrator of the piece observes: ‘Something was happening to mother, things were happening to all of them, nothing ever stayed the same except maybe this weather…’.
Her mother commits suicide, after poisoning Chris’ baby twin siblings, and soon afterwards, two of her brothers are adopted by a childless aunt and uncle. Her father is violent – ‘… it was coarse, coarse land, wet, raw, and red clay, father’s temper grew worse the more he saw of it’ – and her elder brother, Will, becomes the only point of constancy in her life. The advent of the First World War also causes change, with those around her joining up to fight.
Her mother’s death particularly alters things for Chris, including the way in which she views the landscape: ‘… the black damp went out of the sunshine and the world went on, the white faces and whispering ceased from the pit, you’d never be the same again, but the world went on and you went with it. It was not mother only that died with the twins, something died in your heart and went down to lie with her in Kinraddie kirkyard – the child in your heart died then, the bairn that believed the hills were made for its play… Thar died, and the Chris of the books and the dreams died with it, or you folded them up in their paper of tissue and laid them away by the dark, quiet corpse that was your childhood.’
The novel is split into three parts – ‘Prelude’, ‘The Song’, and ‘Epilude’. The Prelude opens with a sweeping and detailed history of the town of Kinraddie, which is written in a style reminiscent of a Medieval legend. Here, Gibbon sets up the geography of the local area, and introduces several characters. We then move onto the main section of narrative, which is set during the first period of drought for thirty years; the landscape is ‘fair blistering with heat’. We are pulled immediately into Chris’ world; we learn of what she sees, thinks, and feels.
Sunset Song is the first volume of the Scots Quair trilogy. As I thought I would enjoy this novel far more than I did, I have decided that continuing with the series isn’t the best idea. By the end of the novel, I sadly had no real interest in any of the characters, or where their lives would lead them. I found Gibbon rather a shrewd writer, very understanding of his young character, and her tumultuous thoughts and feelings. At times, he captures her spirit and unease well; after she is struck, for instance: ‘She’d thought, running, stumbling up through the moor, with that livid flush on her cheek, up through the green of the April day with the bushes misted with cobwebs, I’ll never go back, I’ll never go back, I’ll drown myself in the loch! Then she stopped, her heart it seemed near to bursting and terribly below it moved something, heavy and slow it had been when she ran out…’. However, something about Chris as she became older alienated me as a reader; she did not feel quite convincing.
Sunset Song is a bleak novel, a sad portrait of a life which is marred by tragedy. There is nothing gentle about this book, which is, in part, a moving portrait of a family beset by change and grief. The real strength here for me was the portrayal of Scotland, particularly when she is at the mercy of the weather, and the way in which Gibbon captured place and period. There is a real artistry which can be found in some of Gibbon’s descriptions, which really helped to set the scene. This is not a heavy-going book; the narrative is relatively straightforward, and although the many Scots words which pepper the text are easy enough to grasp, a glossary has been included. However, it did feel a little too bleak in places, and I longed for a lighter read or two to balance it out.