Talk of the Toun, by Helen MacKinven, offers a mordant look at 1980’s working class Scottish life for a seventeen year old Catholic girl whose aspirations go beyond what is regarded as possible within her insular family and community. Written using the local dialect and language of the time, the tale is raw and uncompromising. It is hard now to believe that many of the goings on were then deemed unavoidable. One can only hope that attitudes have progressed.
When the story opens the protagonist, Angela, is looking forward to the end of the school term and the beginning of the long summer holidays. Her best friend, Lorraine, is to join Angela’s family on their annual trip to a northern English caravan site. Lorraine and Angela have been friends since they were four years old. They tell each other everything, and Angela dreams of them leaving home together to live in Glasgow where she hopes to go to Art School. Her parents have other ideas for her future closer to home.
The reader is shown life through Angela’s eyes. When Lorraine cries there are tears but also snotters to be wiped away; father snores and farts, emanating pungent smells; bathroom odours and stains are described in unpleasant detail; rooms reek of sweat, carpets squelch, clothes are marked by spilled food and skids. The lack of cleanliness and hygiene is regarded with distaste but accepted.
When Lorraine befriends another girl from school Angela feels betrayed. She remembers how she once saved Lorraine’s life during a play incident in a quarry and wonders at her ingratitude. Angela sees everything as it affects her with little empathy for the lives others around her lead.
When the girls meet the handsome Stevie, just released from borstal, he is immediately attracted to the slim and pretty Lorraine. Angela, large and overweight, is used to such a reaction but wishes to have her share in Stevie’s attentions. She contrives to meet up with him alone where he brushes her aside. When Lorraine then starts to spend time with him Angela feels she must act, for Lorraine’s own good, and sets in motion a series of events which will have devastating consequences for her friend.
Family life is explored. Angela derides her talented and determined little sister, who also aspires to a life beyond her upbringing. She despises her parents with their soap operas and nail pictures, not noticing that they are doing the best they can for her. Angela is close to her grandmother but too preoccupied to take action when potential health issues are revealed.
The writing evoked a life that I found hard to stomach: the casual acceptance of priests ‘fiddling’ with alter boys; the culpability of young girls who went alone with a boy and were then raped; the coarse and cruel language of sexism, racism and bigotry that was prevalent and merely shrugged away.
The reader is given an insight into the poverty of attitude and aspiration that a lack of money can engender in some. However, I questioned if my desire for Angela to change was simply a wish that she should become more like those I am comfortable with, and acknowledged the conceit and intolerance this lays bare.
A strongly written, discomfiting, coming of age tale in a setting close to home yet unfamiliar. I am glad to have read it, and now need to work my way through the thoughts engendered.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Thunderpoint Publishing.