Am Bratach No. 245
Despite its title, this is not a romantic novel.
The main character, Richard, is a gay man born into a working class Scottish town, who at university falls in love with Luke also from a working class background but, frustratingly for Richard, heterosexual. The two of them become the closest of friends for their duration at university. Luke is promiscuous and earns extra money by dealing drugs, often engaging in sex with his female clients. Alternate chapters chart the friendship of Richard and Luke, and their various escapades which lead inevitably and inexorably to tragedy. Written in the first person, it is all seen through the eyes of Richard.
Alternating with this tale of Richards university days is an account, written in the third person, of the older Richard, now living in a coastal village in the far north of Scotland, who is visited by his much younger sister Stephie and for a time her friend Loren. He also receives an e-mail from his former university flat mate, Calum, saying Luke has been asking about him. Richard works as a self-employed writer and designer of computer war games, and remains single and, apart from the odd liaison whilst on business in Glasgow, celibate.
Within the pages of this powerful, atmospheric and often disturbing book, there is a lot of falling in love, but much of it remains unrequited, or in some instances is returned physically but not emotionally. Richard loves Luke, but Luke is only interested in women, many of whom fall in love with him. Luke himself seems incapable of love and uses those about him for his own ends. Richard can see this, but it doesnt stop him being at the beck and call of Luke, even when he clearly disapproves of Lukes behaviour. It is not giving anything away to say that Lukes drug dealing leads to them both being evicted from the university halls of residence, and ultimately to their expulsion from the university.
In the chapters concerned with the older Richard, we discover him living much like a hermit, with all his emotions subsumed into his work. It is into this environment that his younger sister is introduced. She too fell in love, but the man ended up leaving her for her best friend, before he discovered she was pregnant. She had an abortion. This friend Loren arrives at Richards home. She attempts unsuccessfully to seduce someone at a local pub, ending up being thrown out after chucking a pint over the innocent man when he refuses her advances. She also attempts, again unsuccessfully, to seduce Richard. She is more successful with the 16-year-old son of the wealthy family who have a holiday home next door to Richard.
There is an extremely disturbing scene that takes place in a gay bar in Glasgow. Richard is there on business, and after his meetings decides to go to a pub he remembers from years ago. There, he meets a man who, whilst heavily drinking vodka, shows Richard pictures of his wife and children, who think he is working as a minicab driver. In fact, he is waiting for his boyfriend, whom he loves, and who repays him with violence. Richard thinks he must be exaggerating until he actually witnesses a scene between them: His companion hopped off his stool and stood still as his lover marched up to him, hauled him to the middle of the floor and punched him in the face. Domestic violence doesnt just happen between men and women. No-one witnessing the scene makes any attempt to intervene.
The central themes of love that is either distorted or unrequited go beyond just sexual love into the arena of the family. It was only after Richard was expelled from university that his parents knew he was gay, something his father found impossible to accept, just as he found it impossible to accept Stephies abortion.
As in her previous novels Negative Space and Spin Cycle, Zoe Strachan demonstrates a facility for closely observing the minutae of peoples lives, and building up tension bit by bit. Going beneath veneers of respectability and normality, she uncovers things that most of us would prefer remained hidden. One of the things that makes this novel unnerving is the way that the extraordinary is made to seem ordinary.