#BookReview News of the Dead by James Robertson

News of the DeadAbout the Book

‘To tell the story of a country or a continent is surely a great and complex undertaking; but the story of a quiet, unnoticed place where there are few people, fewer memories and almost no reliable records – a place such as Glen Conach – may actually be harder to piece together. The hazier everything becomes, the more whatever facts there are become entangled with myth and legend. . .’

Deep in the mountains of north-east Scotland lies Glen Conach, a place of secrets and memories, fable and history. In particular, it holds the stories of three different eras, separated by centuries yet linked by location, by an ancient manuscript and by echoes that travel across time.

In ancient Pictland, the Christian hermit Conach contemplates God and nature, performs miracles and prepares himself for sacrifice. Long after his death, legends about him are set down by an unknown hand in the Book of Conach.

Generations later, in the early nineteenth century, self-promoting antiquarian Charles Kirkliston Gibb is drawn to the Glen, and into the big house at the heart of its fragile community.

In the present day, young Lachie whispers to Maja of a ghost he thinks he has seen. Reflecting on her long life, Maja believes him, for she is haunted by ghosts of her own.

Format: Hardback (384 pages)       Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Publication date: 5th August 2021 Genre: Historical Fiction

Find News of the Dead on Goodreads

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My Review

News of the Dead is this year’s winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. You can watch its author, James Robertson, talking about the book on the Walter Scott Prize’s YouTube channel, where you’ll also find interviews with all the other shortlisted authors.

Because News of the Dead moves frequently between three different storylines, there is a danger of it feeling like three books squeezed into one.  However, the author manages to create sufficient connections between the three to make it a cohesive whole, although the storyline set in the present day feels the least connected. Having said that, Maja’s story, when it is finally revealed near the end of the book, I found the most compelling and I think in expanded form would have made a fine novel in itself.

For me the character who leapt off the page was Charles Kirkliston Gibb. He’s an unapologetic rogue and chancer, admitting ‘From the age of ten my life has been an unbroken campaign of not being found out’, and happy to describe himself as ‘a kind of intellectual vagabond’. His journal provides an insight into his work of transcribing and translating the Book of Conach, his desire to string this out for as long as possible in order to keep a comfortable roof over his head and details of life in the ‘Big House’, the home of Lord and Lady Glen Conach, and their daughter, Jessie. For Charles, his journal also acts as documentary proof of his existence, even if not everything in it is necessarily true.

Storytelling is a pervading theme of the book, whether that’s individuals’ own personal histories – the stories they tell about themselves – or how they are remembered by others. The book also explores the notion of what is true and what is invention, and how easy (or difficult) it is to tell the difference. Since the Book of Conach was later destroyed in a fire along with Charles Gibb’s transcription, only his translation (which became a joint endeavour with Jessie) remains. But who is to say that translation was faithful? After all, as Jessie asks at one point, ‘Do you think history must always be duller than fiction?’

News of the Dead is certainly far from dull and the author manages to pull off several different styles, including passages in Scots dialect for the stories told by the irrepressible and accommodating Geordie Kemp, who never likes to disappoint a listener.

In the interview mentioned above, the author explains how he sought to make Glen Conach, although an invented location, feel as real as possible. Although from the outside it might appear isolated and remote, its inhabitants have no reason to leave. This is neatly mirrored by the contemporary story being set during the Covid pandemic so Glen Conach’s residents are unable to leave even if they wanted to. Harking back to earlier days, they must rely on the support of their little community for their needs.

News of the Dead is my first experience of the writing of James Robertson but it has made me keen to search out his other books. It’s an example of why I look forward to the announcement of the Walter Scott Prize longlist every year because it invariably introduces me to authors and books I would otherwise never have come across.

In three words: Engrossing, thoughtful, authentic

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James RobertsonAbout the Author

James Robertson is the author of The Fanatic, Joseph Knight, The Testament of Gideon Mack, And the Land Lay Still, The Professor of Truth and To Be Continued.  Joseph Knight won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year;  The Testament of Gideon Mack was longlisted for the 2006 Man Booker Prize; and And the Land Lay Still won the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award. Robertson is also the author of four short-story collections and numerous children’s books written in Scots. He runs an independent publishing house, and is co-founder and contributing editor of Itchy Coo, which produces books in the Scots language for young readers. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

Connect with James
Website | Goodreads

5 thoughts on “#BookReview News of the Dead by James Robertson

  1. I loved this book, one of my top reads this year! I’d recommend The Testament of Gideon Mack if you want to try another of his books although And The Land Lay Still is also brilliant.


  2. I was hoping Rose Nicolson would win the Walter Scott Prize, but I haven’t read this one yet and it does sound interesting. If you want to try another James Robertson book, I remember enjoying The Testament of Gideon Mack.


  3. My read on a theme bookclub theme this month is Winners. I was looking at the Walter Scott prize for a title. Maybe I should reconsider and read this one!

    Thanks for sharing it with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge!


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