Book Review: Bitterhall


This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

Bitterhall is a story of intersecting lives and the effects of childhood experiences on how a person manages relationships. It is also a ghost story of sorts, including a murder mystery. Set in contemporary times but with disturbing undercurrents from the past, the narrative offers three perspectives on events that occurred over some weeks one autumn in recent history.

The first key character to be introduced is Daniel – thirty-six years old and one of three tenants living in a large house in a northern city. He works at the local university where his innovative work is nearing fruition. He has recently stolen an historic diary from a long time friend.

Daniel is attracted to the most recent tenant to take up residence in the house share. Tom is handsome, works in marketing, and is in a new relationship with Órla, a PhD student. Daniel discovers he has an affinity with Órla that he rarely enjoys with anyone. It is these three who recount the unfolding tale.

The third tenant, Badr, appears more centred than the rest. Also living in the house is Minto, the reclusive owner of the place.

In the opening section of the book there is a suggestion of suppressed violence in Daniel’s behaviour. He worries about how he appears to others, often choosing his own company as less stressful. His recollections focus on the insular – observing but rarely empathising.

Órla lives in another house share but stays over with Tom regularly. She is already waiting to have her heart broken, trying hard to tamp down this expectation.

“I loathed this being the one running after; I wanted to be the one people chase.”

When Tom starts reading the stolen diary, his behaviour notably changes. Órla grows worried but has little idea how to help.

“He has succeeded where I haven’t in becoming plural. And it’s not just down to me it happened – he split himself. He was split. Something clawed at him and he let it in and in the process let himself out. Selfletting, like bloodletting.”

By the time narrative shifts to Tom’s perspective it has become clear that some uncanny force has manifested. Órla turns to Daniel for help.

Tom lives his life in cycles, accepting that each will end. He is currently at the start of a new sexual cycle with Órla. His current job has lost its appeal and he desires change. He is disturbed by his reaction to Daniel and this is exacerbated by the diary’s effect on him. Is the force it unleashes obsession or possession?

“Everyone is drenched in ghosts – there are so many more dead people than alive – so it takes a cut to let them get in.”

There is an oblique quality to each of the character’s remembrances that, while building depth to events recounted, remain skewed by personal perspectives. The stealthy progression will lead the reader to examine what they believe.

The story starts at the housewarming party organised when Tom moves in. A second party, held at the home of the owner of the diary, is pivotal. The denouement is masterfully rendered exposing a truth many may try to avoid accepting. Spectres are raised over how much control anyone can have over their own feelings and behaviour – and how much they can influence the actions of those they care for.

Within each character’s sections the book is structured in short chapters with intriguing headings. Although this bite sized approach maintains pace, I found chapters meaty, requiring pauses for digestion. I was fully engaged but could not rush the reading.

Any Cop?: A skilfully shadowed story that will creep into the reader’s psyche inducing a questioning of possibilities. An exploration of the power of the mind – how difficult it can be to control when personal fears are triggered.

Jackie Law


Book Review: The Sound of My Voice

“There are two histories to your life: one that belongs to other people – this history has many variations – and another that is yours alone. Both of them are true: their contradictions must be maintained and resolved inside you every moment of your life. In effect, you carry the burden of two lives at least, and not only are you running out of energy to do this, but you realise you have lost sight of any purpose to this weary exercise.”

The Sound of My Voice, by Ron Butlin, tells the story of Morris Magellan, a well paid executive at a biscuit company, husband, father and chronic alcoholic. Narrated in the second person it takes the reader through a day to day life that is gradually spiraling out of control. Gaps are appearing in Morris’s memory. He suffers occasional hallucinations. Alcohol is not regarded as the problem, it is his solution.

Morris sits inside his comfortable office feeling that he is pushing through a rising tide of mud – around him and inside, trapping and choking. He drinks to keep the mud down thereby allowing him to breath. His colleagues may question his well being but his tasks and output continue to achieve what is needed. His wife, Mary, is aware of the drinking but is trying to be supportive despite appalling behaviour at home. Morris recognises that he once loved, and thought this could be enough. He now regards Mary as replaceable.

There are small successes to be enjoyed – a hand held by his daughter as they walk, a meal cooked for the family, a meeting at which Morris shines – but any euphoria does not last. Always the mud rises and the contents of a bottle will put things to rights. The missteps increase in frequency. When Morris acts out of turn he drinks to forget.

“Every day, every moment almost, you must begin the struggle over again – the struggle to be yourself. You keep trying, like an actor learning his lines, in the belief that eventually, if you work hard enough, you will play the part of ‘Morris Magellan’ convincingly. In time you hope to convince even yourself.”

The tension underlying the narrative leads the reader to a terrifying denouement. Morris is travelling towards self-destruction. The question is, who he will take along.

This novel was first published in 1987 when the model of success in Thatcher’s Britain included the trappings of Morris’s life. The book was well reviewed on release yet quickly disappeared. Perhaps readers were not ready for its somewhat stark depiction. A few years later Irvine Welsh came across a copy and described it as ‘one of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s’. Endorsed by many respected writers, widely translated and award winning, it was included in the List‘s 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time. I readily join those early reviewers who credited it with the highest verbal accolades. In this its fifth regeneration I hope it finds the wider readership it deserves.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Polygon.