The first novel by poet, translator, short story writer and children’s author, Kenneth Steven opens ambiguously. Somerled Stewart arrives in an isolated Highland glen, fashions a primitive shelter, and ultimately a farm, with an axe, his one possession. No land-owner seems to mind his staking such a claim, no planning authority objects to his unauthorised development. He falls for the local barmaid who serves him free drink – without protest from the landlord. It is not certain, initially, in which historical period these problematic events are set.
After this fey introduction, the tale moves more adroitly to complex issues and the setting emerges as contemporary – or close to contemporary.
Somerled seeks to escape his relentless nightmares, finds love and a caring family and exercises his skill as a wood-carver but his past overtakes him. His sister Deirdre arrives, even more physically and emotionally damaged than Somerled, and offers some balanced comprehension of his loveless childhood. Some of the clearest and most powerful passages centre on their brief return to the home they shared as children, from which he fled in impotent rage and where he becomes aware of the futility of his own bottled-up anger.
The strength of this novel, its clumsy opening notwithstanding, is that it offers no neat resolutions. The Stewarts may be an entirely dysfunctional family and the Campbells, into which family Somerled marries, a warm and caring one, yet ease eludes him. The shadow which has long darkened his life threatens his marriage which is almost destroyed by his cathartic journey with Deirdre. His creative skills bring no respite and little sustenance. Hope and fear coexist in balanced measure. The landscape alone refreshes and revives but also threatens. Perhaps Scotland has become a nation of damaged souls and we need our novelists to reveal that unpalatable truth.
Steven’s first novel robustly and sensitively explores the debilitating consequences of abuse, violence and the lack of love. It promises even greater things to follow.
The above article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 15th September 2013