The Walk Home, by Rachel Seiffert, Virago, RRP£14.99, 304 pages
The soul of The Walk Home, Rachel Seiffert’s new novel, is its setting, Glasgow. The city’s streets, housing schemes and tenement blocks provide not merely a backdrop, but history, colour and life.
Seiffert, whose debut novel The Dark Room (2001) was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, tells two intertwined stories, one set in the early 1990s, the other “now, or thereabouts”. The first is a family drama: Graham, a young Glaswegian, falls in love with an Irish girl, Lindsey, has a son, Stevie, and causes domestic strife by playing the drums in a local Protestant marching band.
The second, set in the present, follows Stevie, now a young man working on a building site with a team of Polish contractors. Stevie is a mystery to his fellow builders – apparently alone in the world, without friends, family or proper shoes. “I can take care ae mysel,” he tells the boss Jozef, his accent (written phonetically throughout) marking him out as Glaswegian.
Seiffert’s narrative alternates between the two time periods and explains how the young boy became this sombre, lonely adult. It is a tale of family feuds and, more importantly, faith. Religion haunts this family in the form of Papa Robert, Graham’s ferocious grandfather, who cut off his son Eric, Graham’s uncle, after he fell in love with a Catholic girl.
Lindsey, similarly, comes from a family burdened by God, growing up a Protestant in Northern Ireland amid the violence of the Troubles. She thought she’d escaped by marrying Graham, but discovers that Glasgow is equally riven: Protestants and Catholics, Rangers and Celtic, blue and green. Lindsey befriends the elderly Eric, now a widower who spends his days drawing pictures and mulling the rift with his father.
Eric is by some way the most intriguing character in the book – a mysterious, solitary figure who offers Lindsey solace as she struggles with her past. He is still immersed in his own, and his disturbing drawings of Bible stories reimagined among the dark Victorian streets of Glasgow speak of an upbringing where the holy book played a bullying part. But Eric is also unsatisfying – too obviously a vehicle to represent and channel those Old Testament tales of fathers and children, sacrifice and betrayal, leaving and homecoming that are the book’s rather heavy-handed themes.
Seiffert is more convincing in her accounts of the city. She has done her research – into the Orange walks and marching bands and life on the housing schemes – but wears it lightly. Her Glasgow breathes with energy and lyricism, the tenements “falling off down the hill”, “torn clouds in the sky”, the roofs “sun-bright and stretching on and on”. She even makes the building site where Stevie works oddly interesting, somehow turning the minutiae of copper pipes and bathroom tiles into a sort of fictional reportage illuminating the life and work of those invisibly holding our cities together.
You can see what Seiffert is trying to do. Glasgow, back then, was divided by old rivalries and sectarian unrest. Now the cultural landscape has changed, and the immigrants are not Irish but Polish. The shift is economically driven – the Poles have moved up from London, where the work has run out, and make their living building new housing in place of the old tenement blocks, now torn down. The city is transforming, both architecturally and culturally.
The mystery is why Seiffert doesn’t make more of this contemporary aspect of her novel. Jozef is given his own story, one that perhaps too neatly echoes Graham’s (he is also suffering from marital woes), but it is frustratingly thin. It is as though Seiffert can’t quite find enough room for that strand of her narrative. It’s a shame, as these glimpses into the new Glasgow bring both the book and the city to life, and offer a refreshing counterpoint to the slightly overwrought family saga that dominates elsewhere.