The Stornoway Way by Kevin MacNeil

By Iain MacSween

ACCLAIMED Lewis author Kevin MacNeil is out to shock with his latest publication, the novel ‘The Stornoway Way’.

MacNeil, who has travelled the world performing his English and Gaelic work, pens his novel under the pseudonymous pen of one ‘R. Stornoway’, documenting the ‘misadventures of an idiosyncratic young Scotsman cartwheeling his way further and further into a Hebridean hell, railing against the constraints of his extraordinary but vanishing island culture, as well as Western civilisation in general’.

Right from the off, we are catapulted into the turmoil with which ‘R. Stornoway’ lives, having returned to Lewis from years busking around the world, and finding himself back in a homeland driving him to despair.

Of particular disdain, is the impending island Sabbath he faces.

‘The Sabbath looms before you, greyish-black, doleful. It’s like falling into someone else’s grave. Week after week after week. I wonder once again whether I can survive this move back to the island’.

What keeps him upbeat is a visit to the house of his best friend Eilidh, years earlier a confirmed ‘sibling’ rather than anything else.

And it is here we are made aware of the author’s penchant for ‘chicken’, or Famous Grouse whisky as you or I would know it.

Through the course of this novel, it becomes obvious the ‘amber nectar’ plays a pivotal - and utterly necessary - role in his return to Hebridean life.

We are introduced to the Stornoway coves and blones, with colourful nicknames such as Joe Idea, Karen Neonach, and Jimmy the Tongue.

Each has a distinctive persona aptly portrayed, and island readers will be hard pushed not to know at least one such character in their own lives.

It is during the chapter entitled ‘A Gossip’s Mouth is the Devil’s Postbag’ that we encounter the angst-ridden frustration surging through R. Stornoway’s blood.

He is lonely, he is depressed, and Hebridean weather is testing his will to live.

‘Rainfall, rainfall to break the toughest spirit. A guy has to face it - life in Lewis is composed of days that are mostly B sides.’

The Leodhasach curtaintwitchers repulse him, and he recalls a humorous anecdote of how villagers in Ness once dealt with one such neighbour.

And then there is the establishment of the church - and this is the cue for what will surely arouse controversy.

‘I don’t want to live like this, under the control of one of those Churches that want to lead us not into temptation but into biblical times, into backwardness. I like living in the here and now because that’s the only place I can be. I like temptation. Food tempts me and drink tempts me and without them I would not survive. These grey little Holier-than-Christ men would set the angels themselves fighting duels. I will not view the world through the Wee Free’s morose-tinted spectacles. The Wee Free mind is often wee, but it’s seldom free’.

The author deems that since God is supposed to have created us in his image, then surely we ought to be creative.

‘Thus, the Island’s God - who is to many, a mercifully spiteful, wrathful and vindictive God - made of me an artist’.

Yet R Stornoway does express empathy, albeit when mourning the loss of a friend’s pet cat.

While his lifestyle has convinced him he will not live to see the age of 50, you get the impression he just doesn’t care.

‘Ceilidh Time’ is this reviewer’s favourite chapter, where we are introduced to the elderly characters of Stornoway who sure know how to party.

There are some side-splitting stories, and the effect of these on this reader was a longing for a dram by the fire on a storm-soaked night, so vividly are events described.

But then there is the inevitable real tragedy, as the author experiences a loss much more painful than that of a friend’s cat.

His world is ripped apart, and his prediction of an early death seems eerily realistic.

There are many aspects of this book which would undoubtedly offend hard-liners in the isles, but the reality is that such prospective readers of the book will never get as far as the ‘many’ aspects.

If MacNeil is banking on an Irvine Welsh-esque rhetoric making this novel a winner, one would have to conclude that an orthodox Hebridean readership was clearly not in his plans.

When Pamela Stephenson wrote a biography of her husband, the comedian Billy Connolly, she asked her readers to guess how many times the f-word would appear before the book was done.

It would be an interesting challenge if similarly adopted by Kevin MacNeil in ‘The Stornoway Way’, and calculators might well be required.

Kevin MacNeil’s ‘R. Stornoway’ has returned to the Hebrides to reinvent himself, but ultimately gloomy weather, the dictatorship of the church and the ever-present lure of the bottle is rapidly diminishing his life expectancy.

Whether this is indeed The Stornoway Way, is entirely for each individual reader to decide.

• The Stornoway Way, published in Hamish Hamilton Hardback, at 10.99 on August 4, 2005.