A biography is, in part, a work of fiction. Lacunae must be filled, inferences made, the scattered pieces of another’s life assembled in an attempt to make some kind of whole, however many bits of the jigsaw are missing. That is the central theme of Hame, Annalena McAfee’s richly textured, playful second novel for adults, which sees Mhairi McPhail, a biographer and archivist, leaving New York and taking her daughter to a remote, fictional Scottish island, where her grandfather was born. She’s coming to seek ‘hame’, to flee her adulterous husband and to pursue the life and work of the recently deceased Grigor McWatt, a poet whose method was, as he put it, to reimagine ‘world literature through the multi-faceted prism of the Scots language’.
McWatt’s verse became a medium for expressing his feelings about how Scotland has been treated by the English (his uber-nationalism extends even to hating kitchen taps, which he views as poncey southern inventions). They took our land, he says; now we take their language. McAfee interleaves the text with these poems. While some, as McWatt’s critics say in the book, are better than others, there is still real intellectual delight in their composition, and also in the lists of Scots words that McWatt collected. My world is certainly enriched by knowing what a ‘gyndagooster’ is (a sudden, sweeping storm).
It’s a word that might well describe McWatt, a blustery, hermit-like figure who inhabited a shack cut off every day by the tide; he made only infrequent incursions to the mainland, where he consorted with the Edinburgh poets and broke the heart of a young acolyte called Lilias. Lilias’s downfall