The sensual world
With her prize-winning third novel Debatable Land, Candia McWilliam returns to the Edinburgh of her childhood for inspiration. She told Sue Wilson how she arrived at her highly original, expressive style.
It‘s rare to ﬁnd a book in which style and substance. medium and message are so beautifully and artfully integrated as they are in Candia McWilliam‘s Debatable Land. winner of this year‘s Guardian Fiction Prize. and a shortlisted candidate for the McVitie. The story of four men and two women (three of them Scottish) sailing a yacht from Tahiti to New Zealand. it plots its unerring course by a series of deftly placed. elegantly understated dualities — realism and metaphor. past and present. north and south, male and female, the epic and the microcosmic — ballasted by McWilliam‘s searching yet compassionate eye for authentic human detail. and her extraordinary descriptive powers.
The novel — McWilliam‘s third — has been a long time in the making — three decades or more in some respects. returning as it does via memory to the Edinburgh of her own childhood. Born in the Scottish capital in 1955. the daughter of renowned architect Colin McWilliam. she arrived on the literary scene (after a Cambridge First and a stint as a Vogue copywriter) with. in quick succession A Case of Knives ( 1988) and A Little Stranger (1989). which established her as a strikingly original stylist in possession of a highly sophisticated and disquieting voice. So why the ﬁve years‘ delay before the hat- trick? And why the return to and exploration of — through the three Scots‘ personalities and recollections — the land of her birth?
‘1 had this book three-quarters written some time ago.‘ McWilliam explains. ‘l‘d spent years on this enormous. ornate. complicated novel about Alec. the central character. but it was pretty much dead in the water. and then my father died andjust blew it to smithereens. It just ended up dead in the water. Eventually l started again and this version came out extraordinarily fast. like a seal being born. In writing it I wanted — the conscious part of me. my intellect as opposed to the unconscious creating part — to set an adventure story in a sort of non-testosterone- saturated style. I was also looking to set preoccupations about the north — the analytical guilt- ridden northern mind. drawn to pleasure but unable to take pleasure in moderation and so ﬁghting it off — in the sensuous. Gaugin-type life of the south. which both draws and repels that temperament. I wanted to put these two things in apposition and see what happened when you reﬂected one off the other.‘
And. of course. how the one blurs into the other. whether benignly — as in Alec‘s partial relinquishment of the narrowa intellectual
Candia McWilliam: ‘saturated with metaphor’
aestheticism that has undermined both his work as a i so though you don‘t feel the needle going in.
painter and his personal relationships — or rnalignly. as in the many instances of colonisation (by the French and the Mormons in the Pacific. by the English in Scotland. by one individual of another) which resonate through the novel. McWilliam’s skill at drawing the tension between opposites and the complex interplay between them is responsible for much of the book‘s weight and force. the more so thanks to her frequently oblique approach. A haunting. horrifying passage where a large sea- mollusc is detached from its beautiful shell by weighting its body so that it slowly tears loose. or an account of an interloper strain of snail on the island of Moorea voracioust devouring the pre-existing species. shapes the novel's questions about homelessness. alienation and oppression as powerfully as a painful. more clearly pointed description ofa ‘traditional’ feast laid on for tourists in Tonga.
‘It seems to me my whole approach and indeed my life is just saturated with metaphor. I can’t help seeing things in a metaphorical way.’
‘lt seems to me my whole approach and indeed my
life isjust saturated with metaphor.‘ McWilliam says.
‘I can‘t help seeing things in a metaphorical way. but I don’t want to stretch it. I never want to clobber the
reader; I like books that slide into your veins secretly.
something is going straight into the bloodstream.‘ Much of this narcotic or hallucinatory effect in McWilliam's work derives from her startling. preternaturally vivid imagery. The human brain is an ‘aching cauliﬂower'; kittens‘ pads are ‘like white raspberries’; flying foxes in Tonga. hanging sleepily in the trees. are ‘umbrellas stuffed with red fur. . . [which] stirred occasionally. and put out a tentative hand. like an old lady feeling in her reticule for an indigestion mint‘.
It's often through the figure of an artist in a novel that the writer plays out his or her most personal concems. and so it seems here with McWilliam and Alec. It‘s not only that they‘re the same age. or that Alec‘s memories of Edinburgh in the 50s and 60s possess the immediacy and fondness of lived recollection. It‘s that in McWilliam‘s description of Alec‘s central dilemma. one hears perhaps several clues as to the failure of that earlier. ‘dead in the water‘ version of Debarable lam]. ‘Alec appeared to me as someone who was frozen by his eye. frozen by being so observant that his responses are aesthetic. not emotional — he was becoming over-formal. frozen by his talent. which I think happens to artists: you reach a pitch of competence where you stop taking risks.’ lfthis was McWilliam‘s dilemma. too. it‘s one she has triumphantly resolved; her willingness to take risks — stylistic. linguistic. thematic — is what gives the novel its splendid originality. while her ability to carry them off ensures its big. lingering reverberation in the mind. Debalable Land is published by Blunntsbul')‘ a! ‘ £14.99. J
The List 16 December l994—l2 January I995 97