Review: A Book of Death and Fish by Ian Stephen

Fish Tales

Ian Stephen’s tale of Peter MacAulay, a fisherman from Stornoway, is a beautiful and wandering piece of storytelling that delivers on its title’s promise, covering some death, much fish and, of course, life.

It is difficult to avoid drawing comparisons with Moby Dick, with its detailed and ever-present references to fish (and fishing, and cooking fish…), but these are generally well integrated into the story. One of its greatest strengths is its overwhelming sense of authenticity. I couldn’t help feeling that I was reading a memoir rather than a novel. It unfolded like life does, from moment to moment, with characters coming and going, rather than running to a conventional plot.

Much of the authenticity comes from the detail, a case in point being Peter’s father’s account of his first outing with a real fishing crew. When they returned, as the youngest on board, his father had to turn his back and call out the fishermen’s names in turn to allocate each a fair portion of the unsold catch. It also comes through in the Scots dialogue, such as when Peter’s “olaid” relates a story about her grannie.

“When ane o the loon teelt her to behave herself or they widna bother aboot a funeral, she says till him, Weel if ye’ll nae bury me for love ye’ll bury me for the stink.”

The book consists of very short chapters, many standalone stories, with some great opening lines, such as:

“Like a lot of folk on this planet I owe my existence to herring. That and the Ross and Cromarty Council points system for allocating new council houses.”

The pathos and poignancy work well at times – a scene where the characters accidentally catch and kill a dolphin then remove the jaw bone for scientific purposes, is particularly striking and sad. But the novel is also filled with humorous anecdotes, often dark, such as the chapter entitled ‘The Trolley’, which takes place in a mortuary and contains the sort of black comedy the title might lead you to expect.

Jumping around in time and place across short episodes does make the story hard to follow at times. It often moves, like memory does, from one thing to another with the most minimal of connections. Discussions switch from fish to war via a musing on the uses of language, or from a family conversation to a digression on Alan Turing. In general, these tangents were rewarding, and helped connect the localised stories to broader historical and political issues.

The novel is self-aware, including many reflections on the nature of stories and how West-Coast storytelling never gets to the point until the story is almost over:

“The yarns ain’t over yet and we’re standing at the gate outside. It’s a fair night. It’s time for the purpose of the visit. You never hear it till folk are just about at the gate.”

At other times the reader is provided with helpful reading advice, such as “Should you wish to proceed to the less technical parts of this story, please omit the following two paragraphs.”

The overall effect is that the book becomes a reflection on writing, life and memory, or as the narrator puts it “I don’t know what this collection of writings was meant to be. It’s just happened. Made without any plan.” Unplanned, the story, and the narrator’s life, are enjoyable for the moments they contain.

 

Schnitzel von Krumm.

 

A Book of Death and Fish by Ian Stephen

Saraband, RRP £9.99, 565 pp

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