Posted in Book Reviews

A Message from the Other Side Review

Books: Moira Forsyth’s A Message From the Other Side explores the dynamics of modern relationships

Moira Forsyth’s fifth novel is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships

Moira Forsyth’s fifth novel is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships

MOIRA Forsyth’s fifth novel begins with the extraordinary statement, “The dead are everywhere”. Catherine sees them in crowds, in coffee shops, the friends and family she has loved and lost. It doesn’t disturb her, even when she realises she is mistaken. She is comforted by the thought that her loved ones are not far away.

Forsyth delves into the secrets and lies of one extended family, tracking their lives and loves from 1994 to 2014, showing how lying by omission can be as damaging as a bare-faced lie. Relationships ebb and flow, and consequences have to be faced sooner or later.

Catherine and her sister, Helen, married young but neither relationship lasted. Catherine decides to make a fresh start and takes a job in Inverness, moving there with her young daughter, Flora. Hugh, Helen’s ex-husband, lives locally and he becomes a lifeline for Catherine, showing her around the area and introducing her to his friends. The friendship between Catherine and Hugh is beautifully handled, the initial awkwardness of their former connection soon transforms into a close friendship. Hugh is a gentle, rather diffident character, wounded by the failure of his marriage. Catherine is charmed by Hugh’s friend Gil, a shambolic, charismatic man who ekes out a living with The Factory, his second-hand furniture business, housed in a former corset factory. Catherine finds The Factory magical, and in Forsyth’s descriptions of the building it is easy to see why. When seven-year-old Flora reluctantly joins her mother in the Highlands, it is through Gil and The Factory that mother and daughter start to connect again.

Helen has remained in London and is mystified by Catherine’s move to the Highlands. Although they speak often by phone, their former intimacy is lost and it becomes easy to keep secrets. This suits Helen when she begins a relationship with Joe. He is handsome and attentive, offering Helen a financially and materially comfortable life. How he earns money is a mystery, one that Helen, overwhelmed by Joe’s charm, is willing to overlook. “Ask no questions, you’ll be told no lies”, he says. A Glaswegian, he also has some old-fashioned views on the roles of men and women within a family, something that Catherine finds astounding but Helen pretends not to notice. Joe is an amorphous character who Forsyth never quite pins down. He is like a ghost in Helen’s life, coming and going when he pleases and never explaining his income or his absences. Hugh introduces Catherine to Gil’s brother, Kenneth, and there is an immediate attraction between them. Kenneth seems to go out of his way to antagonise Catherine, but eventually they begin a relationship which results in a second marriage for both. Kenneth seems to hate Gil, seeing him as a failure who scrounges money from his family rather than sorting his life out. It is a constant bone of contention between the couple, made more so by Flora’s love for Gil and enmity towards the strict Kenneth. If there is one jarring note, it is why Catherine falls for the dour and argumentative Kenneth. The couple spend so much time disagreeing with each other that it seems unlikely that even their undoubted physical attraction can paper over the cracks. Forsyth tells her story in six sections, covering a twenty-year period but not every year is included in her narrative. Instead, she lets the natural flow of the story and the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks. It is refreshing to have an author trust her readers to follow the tale without being spoon-fed and makes for a much more satisfying read. The sense of the lead characters waiting for a sign to start a new phase in their lives is well communicated.

This is an engaging evocation of the ups and downs that make up contemporary relationships. The imagined or actual slights that exist in most families lends authenticity to the sisters’ extended family. Forsyth examines the everyday niggles of marriages as well as the complex reasons why they break down. Secrets are finally revealed and ghosts laid to rest, and families go on whatever happens. Forsyth’s prose is as smooth as silk, letting her substantial novel of over four hundred pages slip by with surprising speed and no little pleasure.

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Posted in Book Reviews, Uncategorized

The Mauricewood Devils

Book Review: The Mauricewood Devils shines light on a dark chapter in mining history

ON the September 5, 1889, at the Mauricewood Colliery, near Penicuik, Midlothian, 65 men and boys were working in the mine. Around lunchtime, some wooden boards caught fire and the flames quickly spread to a coal seam, creating a smoky inferno.

Two men survived and 63 died, including a 12-year-old boy. It devastated the lives of their dependents, many relying on the miners to keep their families from the poor house. Outside of the immediate area, the disaster is little-known today.

Drawing on her own family history, Dorothy Alexander has fictionalised the events of 1889-1890, telling the story through the eyes of Martha, the daughter of a miner, and her step-mother, Jess, both having lost the man they loved. She intersperses their narratives with contemporary, factual reports, which demonstrate how differently the authorities assessed the events. Alexander has arranged these in 50-word paragraphs in traditional ballad metre. These blunt reports, which concentrate on the financial losses, provide a callous counterpoint to the grief and despair of the families left behind.

The key to the story working as a novel is making Martha’s seven-year-old voice convincing and Alexander achieves this with aplomb. In order to relate the story, Martha must impart facts that most children wouldn’t know or understand but Alexander seamlessly slips them into the child’s narration. Martha is a bright and endearing character who has lived with her grandparents and sister Helen since the death of her mother shortly after her birth. Her grandmother is a hard woman who never fails to let Martha know that she “killed” her mother. The two girls are always hungry and spend most of their time out of school doing chores. They always look forward to their father’s visits with his second wife, Jess, knowing there will be ample food on offer.

Jess is a no less sympathetic character, waiting anxiously until March 1890 for her husband’s body to be brought up from the mine. She works at the nearby paper mill which affords her more choices than many women of the time. She has always wanted her husband’s two girls to live with them but their grandparents want to keep them close at hand. Jess tries to support the women whose men have already been brought up for burial knowing she must face that traumatic day herself.

Through Jess, we see the women who became known as the Mauricewood Devils in a different light from that which is recorded. When the authorities decided to cap the still burning mine, only 30 or so bodies had been recovered. Many families were left in limbo, grieving but without a body or a grave to mark their loss. Several women got together to demonstrate against the mine owners, demanding the mine should be opened and the remaining bodies recovered. Many were taken aback by the women’s courage in taking on such powerful figures; many were horrified that women should behave in such a manner.

The mine was finally reopened in March 1890, and the rest of the miners were recovered. It soon became clear that several men were still alive when the mine shaft was capped, which compounded the families’ horror.

Alexander has used the memories and stories related by members of her own family to add colour and authenticity to her story. The monologues bring a sharp focus to 19th-century life in small mining communities, through the eyes of both a child and an adult. The work was backbreaking with very few health and safety measures, and it wasn’t so long before this period that women and girls worked in the mines too. The social conventions of an underprivileged, working-class community are revealed as people try to pull together and survive the disaster. There was a fund set up to assist the dependents of the Mauricewood miners but the rules as to who qualified were strict. A woman who remarried was immediately cut off and once children reached 14 years they too were left to fend for themselves.

This is an engrossing story about a vital piece of social history. If that sounds dull, be assured that Alexander’s finely wrought characters are anything but. Martha and Jess sparkle amongst the poverty and coal dust, their voices ringing out down the years that have seen too many people lost in industrial disasters. It is an important tale, beautifully told, and deserves to be better known.

Published by Freight Books.

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