Friday, September 19, 2014

Sleepless in Scotland

I looked for Nervine in my bathroom cabinet without success.
It's Friday night at the end of a head-spinning work week, the sort of week when you crawl home and you're too tired to even think about what's in the fridge, so you eat vegetable soup straight out of a can without heating it up; and then you collapse onto the bed, but when you close your eyes, the gears in your brain are still clicking and clacking away, and there's no chance you can simply slip into slumber. This is when you face the facts: sleep will no doubt come later, but what you need to do in the meantime is flush work out of your head by picking up a book and pouring yourself something to wash it down with. Since the big news this week is the Scottish decision to remain in the UK, I vote we decide on a setting in Scotland.

Now, you can go several ways: you can go quiet with a visit to a private girls' school in Scotland in the 1930s with Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or, you can tell yourself your head is already whirling any way, so why not make it really gyrate with the fantastical Lanark: A Life in Four Books, by Alasdair Gray, set in Glasgow and a hellish version of that city called Unthank. Or you can opt for a charming and relaxing read with Compton Mackenzie's 1947 book, Whisky Galore, in which the S.S. Cabinet Minister, carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whiskey, is wrecked off the remote fictional Scottish islands of Great Todday and Little Todday during World War II. Happily, unlike those scrambling Scottish islanders, we can pour a glass of Macallan before the bottle threatens to disappear under the ocean surface.

If none of those books sound good, how about an unusual thriller? The protagonist and some-time narrator of Steve Alten's The Loch is Zachary Wallace, a brilliant young marine biologist, whom we meet during a catastrophic encounter with a giant squid in the Sargasso Sea. This experience is Zack's second near-drowning (his first came on his ninth birthday in Loch Ness), and the trauma sends him into a downward spiral in South Beach, Florida. Zack is suffering from hydrophobia and night terrors when he receives a message from his father, Angus, in the Scottish Highlands.

Zack hasn't seen Angus since his parents divorced, and his mother took Zack to America when he was nine. Now, 17 years later, Angus is on trial, facing the death penalty for the murder of an Englishman, Johnny Cialino. Angus's defense? Basically, "I punched Johnny, and he fell into Loch Ness, where he was eaten by you know who." Once Zack arrives, Angus asks his hydrophobic son to prove the Loch Ness monster's existence. Grisly events ensue, and a media circus develops. The Loch is soon swarming with searchers. Templar Knights even appear. Oh, boy!

It's hard for me to convey the flavor of this 487-page book. It's not one of those short-chaptered page turners that make you feel as if you have ADHD. Writer Alten is interested in ancient Scottish history and the roles of mutation and natural selection in evolution. This is not to say this thriller isn't far-fetched; however, given its premises, it hangs together in a stew of history lessons, swashbuckling action, pulse-racing horror, and budding romance.

It begins with a prologue set in 1330, when Sir Adam Wallace possesses Robert the Bruce's heart in a silver casket. From time to time, several pages of hard-to-read print appear, giving us Adam's 1330 journal entries. They explain how Zack carries the curse, "wrought by nature," that's haunted the Wallace men since the passing of Robert the Bruce. Chapters close with quotations from scientists about evolution and from eye-witness accounts of the Loch Ness monster. It's a long way to the end; shortening could have been done. There's not a whole lot of dialect, but what's there is annoying. Zack occasionally irritated me, too. But, give the guy his due. He returns to Scotland and faces his demons, and I enjoyed losing sleep reading about it.

1 comment:

  1. Good grief, Georgette! 500 pages, 700 years, and a victim eaten by the Loch Ness monster? Were either you or the author (maybe both) sampling Scottish brews?