From her first work of fiction on, Rachel Seiffert, a British novelist of German and Australian parentage, has created a series of characters whose lives have been throttled by the dead hand of the past, the legacy of one or another of history’s upheavals. The Second World War in Germany, the collapse of Communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, and the Troubles in Ireland of the 1970s to 1990s extend their morbid clutch in Seiffert’s previous two novels and collection of short stories. In The Walk Home, the present novel, it is the partition of Ireland into the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland whose reverberations are still felt almost a century later by members of a family of Irish Protestant descent living in a housing estate in Glasgow.
The book begins with the appearance of Stevie, a close-lipped young laborer come to work for Josef, a Polish building contractor finishing a job in Glasgow. Josef is desperately hoping to meet a fast-approaching deadline and to make money enough to return to Gdansk and his disillusioned wife. She had left him a couple of years ago, fed up with the couple’s makeshift life, an expedient meant to gain them the wherewithal to return to Poland, acquire a house, and start a family but which had gone on now for almost a decade, to no avail. Josef’s troubled construction site, his problematic Polish crew, and his longing for home provide one thread in the novel, but the main one belongs to Stevie. Who exactly is he? A Glaswegian, obviously, and, as it turns out, a skilled and meticulous worker. But what is he up to with his threadbare shirt, trousers patched with an Ulster badge, and not a word to say on where he calls home?
Stevie’s origins, at least, are revealed very quickly: He was born to young parents: Lindsey, an Irish girl from County Tyrone, and Graham, the youngest of four brothers and still in high school. The two met when the boy crossed over to Northern Ireland with a drum-and-flute band to play in one of the traditional (and volatile) Orange celebrations commemorating the Protestant victory at the Battle of the Boyne that mark every July in Ulster and, as it happens, in Glasgow as well. The result of their meeting is a pregnant Lindsey and her coming to live with Graham and his parents, Malky and Brenda, in their flat in a decaying Glasgow housing project.
That’s the setup, and the rest is governed by history — most crucially, Brenda’s late father’s, Papa Robert’s, ancient grievance against Catholics, who, when the old man was but a small boy, ran his family out of County Louth when religious enmities boiled up with Partition in the early 1920s. Dead Papa Robert may be, but the damaging effects of his implacable, angry nature are still felt, not least in the lonely existence of his reclusive son, Eric, who, monstrously and intolerably in his father’s eyes, married a Catholic woman, now dead. A laid-off draughtsman from the Glasgow shipyards, Eric fills his days drawing scenes from the Old Testament: grim, grotesque adaptations representing his broken relationship with his wrathful, unforgiving father: “Nae rainbow, is there? Or olive branch,” he observes. Time and again members of the family rehash the past: “Rubbing at the sore spots on the family conscience,” thinks Graham and says to his father, “Cannae be daen wae sackcloth and ashes.”
Seiffert’s rendering of Glasgow argot and accent in dialogue is superbly done and completely comprehensible, but still captures the exoticism (to our ears) of Scots English. Meanwhile, the narrative passages are beautifully spare, precise, and austerely evocative of place and the fraught mental climate of a culture steeped in Old Testament vengeance and Calvinist gloom. Still, it is words, in fact, that are this family’s great stumbling block: They either cannot or will not summon them when they are desperately called for — out of pride, fear, or, in many cases, simple impotence.
Papa Robert, fount of discord and stymied relations, was, we learn, master of the silent treatment; his son, Eric, is expressive only in drawing; Graham is inarticulate, most especially before Lindsey’s fuming wordlessness; and Stevie, it seems, has been stunned into silence and exile by his parents’ acrimony. It is part of Seiffert’s great accomplishment that she lets us understand the reasons for the bleakness of these relationships, as well as the rays of light that redeem at least some of them, all this, even as the characters themselves are hopeless at explaining, or even knowing, themselves.
Graham, for one, a good and generous man in spirit, is still unable to understand his own life, never mind putting it into words. He finds his only eloquence in drumming, at which he is a virtuoso. But there lies a great difficulty and vexation, for the exercise of his gift is inescapably linked to the exaltation of stalwart Protestantism against the Catholic foe, finding its great consummation in the Walk, the annual procession of Orange lodges and drum-and-flute bands through Glasgow a week before the Ulster celebration of July 12th.
With its pounding drums, “skirling flutes, dark suits, bright sashes, and crown and Bible banners,” the Walk is for Graham and his ilk a glorious, uplifting occasion in which pride and skill combine in joyful transport; for hardcore Orangemen; it is glorious, too, and a matter of pride, but it is also a bellicose demonstration of might in which tribal aggression and hatred feed off each other. For Graham’s mother, Brenda, and his wife, Lindsey, the whole business is anathema. Both have had a snootful of Orange belligerence and triumphalism from their respective fathers; both understand very well the fatal precedents and possibilities. But for the novel itself, the Walk provides a many-dimensioned metaphor into which Seiffert brilliantly fits her characters’ destinies, and that is this fine novel’s crowning achievement.