Talk of the Toun, by Helen MacKinven, is a raw, dark, hilarious coming-of-age tale set in 1980s Falkirk.
Disclosure: I know Helen through our publisher Cranachan. This hasn’t affected the review in any way – if I hadn’t liked the book, I’d wouldn’t have reviewed it! If you’ve been reading my reviews over the past years, you’ll see that liking a book is my main criterion for reviewing it – if I don’t like a book, I can’t be bothered spending any more time on it than it took to get to the last page. I bought my own copy, Helen didn’t ask for a review, and doesn’t even know it’s coming. So, with that said, on with the review…
Sometimes it feels like the entire publishing world has got Ferrante Fever – an obsession with the Neapolitan novels of reclusive and enigmatic author Elena Ferrante. Earlier this year, to see what the fuss was about, I read My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the series of four featuring Lenu and Lila, two girls growing into women in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, beginning in the 1950s. I doubt I’m the target audience – my tastes run to historical fiction (the older the better), science fiction, fantasy, and children’s books of all sorts. But I was gripped by the ebb and flow of the relationship between the two girls, their fight against a harsh and uncaring environment, and their desperate need to carve out an existence for themselves in a changing world. I can see what the fuss was about.
While I was reading Talk of the Toun, my thoughts kept drifting from 1980s Falkirk to 1950s Naples. The relationship between Angela and Lorraine – at once incredibly simple and ridiculously complicated – echoes the infinitely malleable friendship between Lenu and Lila, as they drift apart, then gravitate closer again, then set off down different paths. The stratified environments they live in, too, along with the horrendous sexism of the times, draw parallels between Italy and Scotland. 1980s Scotland had the extra layers of casual racism and sectarianism, of course.
But Talk of the Toun is very much its own book, and much of its character comes from the humour. Angela is a funny and engaging narrator, and there’s more than one character who considers themselves a bit of a comedian. Let’s face it, in 1980s Scotland, at least half the population thought they were Billy Connolly.
It’s frank in its discussion of sex (Gran’s advice about vinegar made me laugh out loud) and almost unrelenting in its references to shit, both human and canine. Bimbo the poodle (star of the cover) provides a lot of the scatological humour, most of which is hilarious – only once did I feel a wee bit sick! (You’ll know the bit when you read it – poor Rab!)
Angela, our narrator, wants to go to Art College. It’s a way out. A way of avoiding the horrid fate of an office job at the OKI factory in Cumbernauld. She fantasises about getting a flat with Lorraine in the West End of Glasgow and partying every weekend… but she’s not doing much about achieving that life. And her parents don’t take her seriously, either.
Her relationship with Lorraine is the most important thing in her life. So when they start to drift apart, she’ll do anything to repair their relationship – with unforeseen consequences.
Angela’s not the most sympathetic of characters, and it’s a testament to the author that you really do empathise with her, for all her lies, selfishness, daydreaming, and self-delusion. She’s a 17-year-old, after all! How many of us had a grasp on who we were and what we wanted out of life at 17? Or worse, had any idea how to make it happen? (I wanted to be a writer at 17 – it took me nearly 30 years to do something serious about it.)
Gran’s clearly the best character, and so vivid I almost felt like I knew her. What am I talking about? Of course I knew her. She’s the archetypal Scottish Grannie! When I collared my partner to quote some bits about Angela’s Gran to her, I set her off on a nostalgia trip about her own Gran. It’s an endlessly quotable book. You may find yourself annoying more than one acquaintance by saying “OK, just one more bit…”
For those of us who grew up in Scotland in the 1980s, there’s a lot of nostalgia in Talk of the Toun. Even casual mentions of Mother’s Pride bread and Askit powders will raise a smile of recognition, but most of all the textures of the 1980s come right through in MacKinven’s evocative prose.
So forget Ferrante Fever. Maybe it’s time for a bit of MacKinven Mania.