by Maggie Craig
448 pages, Allison & Busby publisher
Review by Bill Kirton
Reviewing a book written by a friend presents particular difficulties. My way of resolving them is probably cowardly but, with so few friends, I need to hang on to all of them. So, if the book’s utter crap, I say nothing until they stop asking me what I thought of it. If it’s not very good, I focus on the bits which were OK and base my review around them. In fact, I think possibly the only author whom I’ve comprehensively dissed and will continue to do so because he writes so carelessly and so badly is Dan Brown (who isn’t a friend). For me, anyone who succumbs to the compulsion to write a book and has the stamina to complete it deserves credit, so I try to be encouraging and constructive.
The difficulties even persist when a friend’s book is really good because then the superlatives you heap on it are seen as glutinous sycophancy or expressions of something other than literary appreciation. So, having perhaps alerted you to the possibilities that any comments I make are conditioned by motives unrelated to the text under scrutiny, let’s get to the point – which is One Sweet Moment by Maggie Craig (a good friend).
Maggie’s written very readable accounts of the men and women of the Jacobite rebellion (Damn Rebel Bitches and Bare-Arsed Banditti) but this is one of her romance novels. It’s set in 1820s Edinburgh and features the love shared by a slum-dwelling girl and a young man from the upper echelons of Edinburgh’s haute société (and you don’t get much hauter than that). Now, if your reaction to that introduction to a love story is to yawn, snigger, snort or reach for Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason just to redress the reality/implausibility balance, it’s one that I’d normally share (except for the Kant bit). I think I believed that love conquers all for a few years in my teens before it became obvious that it was more frequently the acceptable face of greed, appetites and otherwise inexplicable but insistent urges. In short, I’m a cynic – not for fashionable reasons but from conviction.
But this book grabbed me at the start and had me turning the pages deep into the early morning. To begin with, the setting is impeccably conveyed – both in historical terms, with the visit of George IV and the radical political stirrings in Scotland, and geographically, with the creation of what’s still called the New Town in the nation’s capital. The conditions which the heroine, Kate, has to endure, living as she does in the dank, filthy vaults of the South Bridge, are contrasted with the airy drawing rooms of her lover Richard’s family home on the corner of Princes Street and Castle Street. The cast of characters spreads between these two extremes and exhibits both the unpalatable miseries of the human condition and the fierce passions that help people at all levels to transcend them.
The love story itself has all the complexities you’d expect with such a seemingly ill-assorted couple but they arise not from some contrived trickery to maintain narrative interest but from the very real impulses of the characters themselves. I was desperate for love to conquer all, I loathed the villains, I became impatient with the very reasonable attitudes of the more ‘sensible’ characters who tried to point out the impossibility of Kate and Richard’s dream, and I wanted to chide Maggie for some of the things she did (and didn’t do) to and for her characters. In fact, I was deeply involved with the world and the people she’d created.
I’m staying clear of specifics because I don’t want to risk giving anything away but this is an example of a book written by someone in full control of her material. It’s not just the sense of place or the historical mood, nor is it the skill of the characterisation or the power of the dialogue – although these things contribute greatly to the book’s impact. No, this is writing which is robust and muscular where it needs to be and yet has moments of delicacy and restraint which have even greater impact. On the final page, for example, comes an understated, throwaway surprise which colours our (well, my, anyway) perception of the significance of the resolution. And, even after that, there’s an author’s note which develops the story beyond its own confines. An important meeting place for Kate and Richard was a neglected garden where medicinal herbs used to be grown for Edinburgh’s physicians. Maggie’s note reads:
In Edinburgh’s Waverley station, opposite the taxi rank and close by the war memorial, there is a plaque on the wall. Placed there by the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, it marks the site of the Old Physic Garden.
After sharing so many moments with Kate and Richard, this adds a subtle poignancy to the book’s echoes.
So, has this turned me into a devourer of romances? Has my cynicism been dented? No. But it’s yet another lesson for me about pigeon-holing books into restrictive genre-dictated categories. The bottom line is that this is a bloody good novel and a very satisfying read.