It is a wee while since the misty Scotland of Kidnapped and Lorna Doone became the grimy Scotland of Trainspotting and tartan noir. Along the way it seems that all the brave lads and bonnie lassies turned into gangsters and working girls while the Highlands filled up with moneyed seekers after pastoral tranquility: “The suburban family wishing for only a muddy plot and organic carrots and then JOCASTA WOULD SLEEP,” as Justine Strang, the sardonic protagonist in Karen Campbell’s Rise observes.
But Justine also warns, “You bring your shadow with you,” and she should know. On the run — from Glasgow and from her sadistic pimp — she wants only to ” . . . throw herself hard and trust to luck she lands somewhere soft.” In Rise she does. Even drowsy Kilmacarra, however, cannot subdue a heroine who seems to erupt onto the first page of the novel like a grouse breaking cover. Her jeans stuffed with stolen cash, she is fleeing the city, heading north. “When she wakes, brief panic, then a breath, then it’s all brown heather and clouds of different grey, the bus climbing. . . . No trees, just a tiny loch like a cup of water left among the rocks.” Brigadoon? Not quite. The remote village of Kilmacarra, about to vote on Scottish independence, is also passionately divided over a proposed wind turbine project, and both subjects neatly anchor Campbell’s urgent, accelerating plot.
Alighting into a landscape of silence then storm, Justine finds shelter among ancient standing stones that seem to ” . . . quiver infinitely, vertebrae on a spine.” She could be Hardy’s Tess, for goodness’ sake. And sure enough tragedy, or near-tragedy, swiftly follows: a dark road, a young runner, a speeding car that doesn’t stop, and Justine the only witness. “He is lying, one leg angled at a sharp obtuse. Pink bone pushing wrinkles through his thigh like puckers on rice pudding. His wee white face; he’s just a kid.” Another child, four-year-old Ross, will become Justine’s charge when she stumbles into a job in Kilmacarra as au pair to Michael and Hannah Anderson, troubled souls repairing their marriage. Here Rise might have floundered. But Campbell, above all a nimble writer, keeps the novel’s domestic drama, its unlikely convergences, and its historical/political intrigues spinning nicely as menace looms in the vile shape of Charlie Boy, the Glasgow pimp. “She should have killed him,” Justine realizes early on. Finally, armed with a stone, she gets her chance, ” . . . smashes it down and down again. On him, on bone? He stops moving anyway.”
The compact power and rhythmic swing of Campbell’s descriptions — whether she is alerting us to shifting sunlight, a broken body, or an ironclad heart — coupled with her laconic wit is equally deadly. Here love stands a chance, but not sentiment, not weakness. Never mind the novel’s inspirational ending, its only false note. Justine, Campbell convinces us, is too clear-eyed to succumb to the Highland mist. “See guys that just think they can?” she observes of a friendly stranger, ” . . . like you’re a convenience. . . . Cheer up, hen. Might never happen.
Oh, it has, pal. It has.”