Waterline, by Ross Raisin, Viking, RRP£12.99, 272 pages
With his first novel, God’s Own Country (2008), British writer Ross Raisin was shortlisted for nine prizes and was the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year. It was a brilliant book, one of my favourites of the year; a voice I’d never heard before, colloquial and rural and entirely stunning. It was a portrait of a Grendel (the monster from Beowulf), a young man outside of society, looking in, watching all that he’d been excluded from. By the end, it was horrifying to see what this Grendel was capable of, not only because of his crimes and intentions and immunity to rehabilitation, but also because I had come to care so much about him. My sympathies were with someone entirely unsympathetic, which is a great accomplishment for a novelist.
Raisin’s new novel, Waterline, is again a portrait of a man outside society, but this time he’s an older man who has lost his wife, and what separates him from society is his grief. Mick’s wife Cathy has died from the asbestos he brought home on his work clothes for 20 years, building ships in Glasgow. He’s stricken by survivor guilt, feeling he’s the one who should have got the cancer. He grits his way through the funeral and visits from the family and friends, and then, when everyone’s gone, he’s just not quite able to re-enter his life.
One of the brilliant aspects of this novel is that Mick’s slide downward comes from his own grief, not from anyone being unkind to him. With the shipbuilding jobs gone, Mick is now a cab driver; his employer gives him time off and, despite a slow time for business, is willing to take him back. He has family who care for him, especially his son Robbie. Everyone assumes that he’ll grieve for a while and then carry on, but as Mick hides away at home and feels bewildered and lost in his grief, carrying on becomes an increasingly impossible task.
What puts Mick in real danger is money. He’s worked hard all his life and has nothing to show for it. Cathy’s illness ate through the little money they had, and because of his pride and sense of guilt, Mick won’t make an asbestos claim against the company. The novel becomes very tense as we see that the bank account is already overdrawn, there’s no income, and even the food is running low.
Waterline is a novel about the lack of any safety net for the working class. Mick’s slide downward is as relentless, gruelling and real as any fall I’ve ever read. Most other falls involve genuine culpability in the protagonist (Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, or the protagonist in Annie Proulx’s Postcards or any of Cormac McCarthy’s lead characters), but here he is entirely innocent, and that makes the book heartbreaking.
Mick’s weakness is pride. He doesn’t want to file a claim or go on the dole or be a burden. This reads as a working-class pride, persistent even in the face of a world that doesn’t care. It limits Mick’s options, and proves to be terrible in combination with the grief he can’t come to terms with. He can’t be in the house any more with all the memories of Cathy so he begins sleeping out in the shed, on the ground, shivering and starving and drinking and alone, and this is only the beginning of the fall.
Waterline is harrowing. Watching Mick suffer can feel unbearable at times, because through him we might sense the limits of our own resilience, the limits of what holds a life together. But it is also lovely and finally redemptive, and Raisin shows a deeper development as a novelist in this book. The last part of God’s Own Country moved very quickly through time, but here Raisin is patient and generous and shows the rebuilding of a life after a fall. This is incredibly difficult to do, but Waterline is strongest in the final 50 pages. You’ll need to time your reading to start those early enough in the evening.
The only thing I would change about this novel would be the small intrusions from other points of view. These provide an outside perspective on Mick, and they’re well-written, but I didn’t think they were needed, and I would have preferred to remain immersed in his story. But that’s only a quibble. The novel is assured throughout, and I think this might come at least in part from Raisin’s very odd writing process. He writes the entire book by hand, then he goes back and starts over and rewrites it from page one. The careful build and momentum is earned, as are the insights into these lives.
Waterline is a great read, and Mick’s story is one you won’t forget. With this second novel, Ross Raisin confirms himself as an exciting talent, a unique, gifted, and generous voice, a young writer with a vision broad far beyond his years.
David Vann is author of ‘Caribou Island’ and ‘Legend of a Suicide’ (Penguin)