Review of Archie and The North Wind By John Jennett - Northwords Now (Autumn 2010)
I was fortunate to read Archie & the North Wind whilst sailing the Hebrides in September. Thanks to this compelling and lyrical novel, I did not need to feel the real gales on my face to conjure up Angus Peter Campbell’s landscape. Instead, with the author’s storytelling swilling in my imagination, the book peeled back the layers of the physical and cultural scenery. This is the writer’s first full-length venture into an English-language work, although some may have sampled his memorable, Calvino-inspired collection of twenty-one fables Invisible Islands (Otago, 2006). Archie is another vehicle for the same distinct voice: unashamedly rooted in the storytelling traditions of the Gael but without any selfconsciousness about the magical realism of a loosely contemporary setting. Here clouds brood “like Gordon Brown” and the reader can expect the recounting of a waterhorse legend to be interrupted by a google search. The fast-paced plot propels the eponymous protagonist towards his zeitgeist confrontation with terrorists and an oil company thousands of miles from his hebridean home.
This see-saw between the dramatic present and the swirl of handed-down stories is a brilliant attempt at revealing the consciousness of Archie: an islander on what starts as a simple, if surreal, quest to “stop the North Wind”. Perhaps Campbell intends Archie to symbolise a race culturally catapulted in less than a generation from “before television” to the present day. The great scholar John Lorne Campbell often reflected on this challenge, writing in 1959 that it was “extraordinarily difficult to convey the feeling and atmosphere of a community where oral tradition... [is] very much alive to people who have only known the modern ephemeral, rapidly changing world of industrial civilisation.”
Certainly this work vividly portrays the concept as closer to a collective consciousness: a framework of experience rather than simply a quaint fireside assembly of avuncular folk with good memories. Campbell himself being steeped in the tradition, makes it all the more remarkable that he has conflated it with a literary, English language novel.
At times the writing is as dazzling as Marquez: take the deft confidence of the opening brush strokes when Archie realised “that the sweet thing in his mouth was his mother, and that the dark thing that hid the world from him was the inside of a drawer in which he slept...” Elsewhere there is a rawness in the meandering, creative flow of the prose. Campbell has done well not to smooth off the corners that both energise the work and hitch it to the traditions.
Occasionally in the labyrinthine nesting of recounted stories I sensed the confidence of the new voice faltering as the author ambitiously wrestled the flow of his native thinking into the modern novel. Littering the text with graphic icons to telegraph switches from one narrative voice to another is a distracting crutch that this talented writer does not need. It would have done him and his readers a service for his Editor to tell him so and to bury some of the obviously authorial “explanations” that occasionally surface. Does the reader need to be told that “...it was, of course, a different version of the story, but this is the one Archie remembered, or thought he remembered and told or re-told or embellished a thousand and one times over the years”. But these minor flaws should not distract from the whole. Nor should the cover design, which on the basis of straw-polls I conducted positioned this as a book for the teenage market.
Angus Peter Campbell has made a bold and brave attempt to fuse the country’s Gaelic traditions with a contemporary novel with bang-up-to-date global, environmental themes. By the measure of his own peers he is a true Bard in the fullness of the tradition and by the evidence of this book a true novelist. Enjoy this English debut; look forward to the next work and even further refinement which may see the writer become as significant a voice in his second-tongue as he already is in his first.