Book Review:

The Interpretations by David Shaw Mackenzie

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cover image for The Interpretations At first glance, David Shaw Mackenzie's second novel The Interpretations looks like a mystery or a thriller. The cover shows a shadowy figure against the backdrop of a river, and asks, 'Twenty years. Are you sure he's dead?'

And at one level this is indeed a mystery novel. Keen long-distance runner Tom Kingsmill starts a race across the Duie Bridge but never makes it to the other side. Did he jump, like five other young people in recent weeks? Was he pushed? Or did he simply disappear? His friends Jim and Mike spend the next twenty years wondering.

But The Interpretations is also much more than a mystery novel. It's a novel with much to say about progress and change, Scottish history, and the relationship between present and past.

The newly-built Duie Bridge, site of Tom's disappearance in 1982, is highly controversial. It links the small Highland village of Dalmore with the wider world on the other side of the firth, and while most welcome that, some strongly oppose it. The story deepens as we learn of other, earlier bridges and the changes they wrought. And finally, beneath layers of history, we discover a link to the Highland Clearances. Elsie McKillop, an eighty-four-year-old woman who was evicted from her home during the Clearances and died of exposure, was buried on Inchduie Island, and one of the towers of the new bridge was built on top of her gravesite.

What does this history mean? To most characters in the book, very little. They go on with their lives, happy for the convenience of a quicker route across the Duie Firth. This is a strong theme of the book, the past being constantly overwritten by the present and surviving only in misunderstood fragments.

Even General Wade, builder of the first bridge back in 1729, survives only in the name of a local pub, The Wade Inn, which everyone calls the Din anyway. Jim finds a portrait of General Wade to put on the wall, but the landlord doesnít even know where his pub got its name from:

'Some English bastard, I suppose,' he'd said.
'Irish, actually,' Weet informed him.
'So what was he doing up here then?'
'He built a lot of roads in the Highlands,' Weet explained, 'and bridges. Opened the place up.'
'Oh aye? Worked for the Tourist Board, did he?'
'Not really no. Part of the plan was to make it easier for the English to pacify the wild Highlandmen.'
'Pacify? What?'
'This is pre-45 we're talking about,' Weet said.
Bohespic shrugged.
Weet shook his head. 'You donít know what the fuck Iím talking about, do you?' (70-71)

The landlord accepts the portrait but puts it in a dark corner, and finally takes it down when he redecorates the pub in canary yellow.

A few try to stop the progress, but are ignored or written off as fools. Reverend McFarren's fervent opposition to the building of the new bridge ends in failure, and his attempts to maintain a consistent position lead to absurdity. When he ends up in an elderly care home, he's given a room with a view of the hated bridge, and is faced with the conflict of wanting a new room, but knowing one of the other residents has to die before he can get it. He writes a pamphlet detailing the Highland Clearances and the death of Elsie McKillop and the shame of constructing the bridge's tower on Inchduie Island, but hardly anybody reads it. In the end, McFarren's church itself is closed down, the land is sold, and a housing development blooms. His old wooden pulpit is donated to the local museum, but there's no room to display it so the curator stores it in his garage, where it slowly gets chipped and cracked by the bumper of his Ford Fiesta. When he dies, the new owner needs to make room for his Jaguar XJS, and chops the pulpit up for firewood. Time and again throughout the book, the present tramples the past, rendering irrelevant or absurd the things people once thought important.

The mystery of Tom Kingsmill follows a similar trajectory. His friends Jim and Mike make elaborate attempts to reconstruct the past, but achieve very little. The town has moved on from the events of 1982. Most of the people involved have died, and the others have moved away. The town of Dalmore is no longer the same place: the new bridge has made it more of a commuter town, with newer, younger residents who 'had no intention of living there forever. No, they were there to work and that's what they did and after a few years they just buggered off somewhere else.'(209)

So even if Tom is still alive somewhere, there's nothing for him to go back to. We gradually learn about an intricate back-story involving an abusive workmate at a fish-packing plant, a police shoot-out, and a suicide that may have been murder. But by the time Jim and Mike finally solve the mystery, it's too late for any of it to matter. The present has rushed on, burying the past beneath so many layers that it's now irretrievable.

As such, the novel will disappoint readers looking for a traditional mystery novel. The mystery is slow-moving, and the thrills of the chase are subordinated to the more subtle evocation of place and time and character. This is not really a novel about what happened to Tom Kingsmill, but about the Duie Bridge and the effects of progress on a small-town community in the Highlands of Scotland. It's about the process of change, as inexorable as the waters of the Duie Firth itself, and how different people react to it.

What The Interpretations does very well is to explore complex themes without ever compromising the authenticity of the fictional world. Mackenzie's prose is quiet and unhurried, taking us confidently through the story and brilliantly evoking each different setting, from a fish-packing plant in 1982 to a Soho café in 2000. The village of Dalmore comes to feel like a place you've visited, and the wide Duie Firth with its monstrous bridge are a constant, haunting presence. It's been more than twenty years since the publication of Mackenzie's debut novel The Truth of Stone, which was shortlisted for the Saltire Society First Book Award, and The Interpretations is a very polished, carefully constructed follow-up. The story grows deeper and richer with every scene, and the themes are subtly and convincingly developed.

The interesting thing is that the characters in The Interpretations still try to uncover the past, no matter how irrelevant it has become, and we as readers still get satisfaction from discovering what really happened back in 1982. It's still a mystery, and we still want to know why Tom disappeared, and how it's connected to the dramatic police shootout in the book's opening section. We have a need to see the record set straight, and the question on the cover of the book still haunts us until we find out the answer. The past is never forgotten in this book, just preserved in rumours and conjectures, unreliable newspaper articles and half-remembered stories, and pamphlets that nobody reads.

Andrew Blackman is a former Wall Street Journal staff writer, now freelancing and writing novels. His second novel, A Virtual Love (Legend, 2013), explores themes of identity in the age of social media, and has been shortlisted for the People's Book Prize. His first, On the Holloway Road (Legend, 2009), won the Luke Bitmead Writer's Bursary and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize.

The Interpretations by David Shaw Mackenzie is published by Sandstone Press, 2013.