by Jack O’Donnell
336 pages, Unbound
Review by Pat Black
Charles Dickens observed that ghosts have a tendency to remind us of our own past. The ghost in Jack O’Donnell’s Lily Poole certainly does this with me.
Lily Poole is set in Clydebank in the 1970s – with time for the odd jaunt in and out of Gartnavel hospital in Glasgow, just 15 minutes away by train, and the hotel with the boating pond just behind it.
The story focuses mainly on John, a troubled young man of about sixteen. He’s fresh out of school, and prospects.
On one cold, snowy morning he stumbles across a little girl called Lily Poole, who pleads with him to take her to school. Whatever else he might be suffering from, John’s a decent kid, and agrees to walk the distressed wee puddin’ to her classes. The only problem being, no-one can see Lily but him.
The pair build a rapport. John shows up at the school gates every day – drawing the attention of various authorities, who see this behaviour as the activity of a pervert. Is John a pervert, in fact? The story begs the question more than once.
After a good old retro doin’ from the polis, John is packed off to the mental health unit at Gartnavel. There, he meets Janine, a fellow resident, who takes more than a shine to him. Although she manipulates and exploits John, he readily becomes her lover and gets involved in her various sub-plots involving the staff. Who wouldn’t?
Meanwhile, back home, John’s mother and father deal with what has happened to their son – the father going through the motions, one of many men from that time and place who were less bothered about family life in general, despite having lots of children. John’s mother Mary is more attuned to the business of day-to-day life with his younger sisters as they go through school.
Hovering in the background is Lily, whose influence seems to seep into other people in the house, a phantasmagorical infection that John passes on.
Soon, uncanny and seemingly supernatural things happen, tapping into the Scottish literary tradition of the second sight – ancient as unearthed bone, even older than two-faced old antisygysy.
The ultimate riddle of who Lily was, what happened to her and what lies behind John’s obsession with her, plagues us as much as him. Anyone looking for easy answers might be best advised to avoid this book. There’s no Taggart moment, no “eureka” epiphany delivered to a breathless leadership by a policeman in a good quality coat. The book makes us question how we process grief, the passing time, guilt and shame, and what mental refuges we might seek when reality makes little sense. Either that, or it’s a prank.
It’s an odd novel. John’s mania and his queasy obsession with Lily prompt questions from the start. There’s a story of murdered girls in the background, a suggestion that John’s motives might be less than pure, that his sleepwalking and fugue states might point towards a dark trigger ready to be pulled. If John didn’t kill those wee girls, then who did? There’s a killer on the road…
What I liked best about Lily Poole was the detail – pungent bits and pieces I recognise from a past life. Kitchens with washing hung from pulleys, marinated in the steam off that night’s potatoes. A massive pot of soup in the depths of winter, underlit in blue flame like a Halloween ghoul in torchlight. The chip pan, a discoloured totem that might have been dredged from a wreck tucked in 200 metres of water, even down to the congealed slime packed inside, to be reused over and over again. Battle-skidded Y-fronts not changed in an age. Buses and trains, their numbers and liveries a folk memory now, the only unchanged thing being the destinations. That odd time warp effect in considering ticket inspectors, security guards, ward sisters and receptionists who annoyed us - bureaucracies that have been changed by the digital age, but not improved.
I was also struck by the realism of the brittle, chaotic love affair on the hospital ward. No good can come of such a relationship, as even the most deluded come to recognise. But John and Janine dive right into that toxic brew. You could say they’re romantics, but you’d probably stop yourself before you said it. A wee cuddle at night can mitigate all manner of hells.
This book doesn’t take you down familiar paths. It is hard to categorise. I guess you could say it’s a crime novel – most Scottish novels are crime novels in some way. In less confident hands, John might have been portrayed as a great artist, his mental health problems sublimated as a creative superpower, madness transubstantiated into something awesome. For O’Donnell to do so would have been hackneyed, so he doesn’t.
Also, John’s relationship with Janine could have gone down the route of quirky romance. There’s nothing wrong with quirky romance, but… that wouldn’t have been a good fit for this book. This would have turned John and Janine’s fling as a proper love affair - and by that I mean, something that only really happens in books. The author steers clear of that stuff. We’re all better off for it. It feels lived-in, real. I can’t pay a higher compliment.
There is a lot of humour here, but it reminds me of an observation a comedian friend of mine once made. “Bleak: An ancient Scottish word, meaning ‘funny’.” The biggest laugh in the book comes when one of the characters receives some life-changing news. It’s the blackest irony, but it is funny; or at least, I did laugh. How Scottish can you get?
Read our author interview here.