le Aonghas Dubh MacNeacail 2013
In his second collection, Mairi Dhall agus Sgeulachdan Eile, carrying many characters and locations forward from the first, Duncan Gillies confirms the vigorous imaginative health of Gaelic literature. A Lewisman, more precisely a Nessman, resident for many years in London, his exile has in no way diluted an acute awareness of the rhythms of human and natural life on his native island.
Using a vocabulary rich in idiom, with a distinctive use of syntax and dialect that roots his stories in a totally identifiable place, his native district, he recreates a three-dimensional living world. There are times, in fact, when the reader has to make a significant effort to accept that these are fictions, rather than wonderfully detailed reportage.
Reviewing his first collection, I wasn’t alone in observing shades of Beckett, which are again present. But this is no acolyte: in demonstrating the intrinsic nature of story-telling, weaving ancient, remembered and observed together, he reminds us that surrealism and magic realism have an ancient (but still vital) pedigree, while persuading us that we have shared an actual experience.
His [MacGillIosa’s] characters are vividly drawn, their idiosyncrasies frequently evoked in an idiomatic turn of phrase. Names and nicknames are utterly characteristic of their community. Their creator (portraitist?) clearly loves them and the landscape they inhabit, which includes named Ness townships (you can smell the sea air and the sweet earthy fragrance of peat). Many of the events drawn on are historical.
A staunch, if curiously benign, Presbyterian fatalism pervades the book, the perceptions of the Faithful revisited with utter precision. Theology and the everyday are woven into weighty, incantatory, stream-of-consciousness flows. At times, the narrative voice merges with the believer’s, echoing the pulpit’s persuasive rant. But this author doesn’t take sides: the bawd is never far from the surface either.
He offers a variety of styles. Some stories are as allusive (and profound) as haiku. A relationship (remembered) between dog and child in Towser is as much evocative prose-poem as story. Some stories incorporate actual poetry. In Mairi Dhall, the female narrative voice is another essay into memory, where the blind old woman’s concerns, are recalled by a neighbour, now aged herself.
At 78 pages, The Mobile Gaelic Unit is essentially a novella, with a picaresque streak. It draws us into the past and present lives of his characters, Domhnall Iain, a retired insurance agent and his friend the Plaosgan, who are not so distant cousins to Vladimir and Estragon.
If the Unit, an old fish van, remains immobile, its role as aspiration provides a core to the whole collection. Age, decay and death may be a constant presence, but what informs these stories is a relish, shared by author and characters, for life.
Review of Màiri Dhall by Duncan Gillies, published by CLÀR/Ùr-Sgeul, 2013
Copyright @ Aonghas MacNeacail agus The Herald, 2013