This review first appeared in The Bottle Imp (Association for Scottish Literary Studies) 18/06/14
Pity the poor heroine of Ron Butlin’s Ghost Moon. Maggie Davies is subjected to more abuse, rejection and humiliation than most mortals can stomach. Cast out of her parents’ home in 1950s Edinburgh for being pregnant and unmarried, we follow her as she veers from place to place, suffering torment after torment in a world that seems firmly set against her from the start. Men are cruel to her, women even crueller, and her pious, judgmental family shows her nothing but disdain. Even in the present day, as Maggie’s adult son Tom visits her in a care home, she is in the cruel grips of dementia, figures and events from her past merging with those of her present as the tangled threads of her life combine to torment her.
Narratives with such grim subject matter can often veer into voyeurism or mere titillation, descending finally into a sort of fictional misery memoir; but in the hands of a writer as skilled as Butlin something rather different happens.
For a start, the gender issues highlighted by Maggie’s status as a victim of misogyny provoke the reader’s righteous rage. The infuriating imbalance between the roles of men and women is expressed strikingly through Maggie’s thoughts:
|Yes, far out at sea—that was where she really was. No land in sight and her only cargo her unborn child. Men, it seemed, always had some sort of harbour to make her. That was the nature of their world—a map of place names like Normandy, Amiens, Berlin. For men it was enough to identify aims and objectives, and then draw co‐ordinates—that done, and with bayonets fixed, they marched, marched, marched into the future, whatever the cost.|
When Maggie goes against the ‘proper’ way of things and becomes an unmarried mother, the narrow and prescriptive labels stamped onto women at this time are revealed succinctly by Butlin in a few telling lines: ‘Girls became women became wives became mothers—that was the proper way of it, the only way. If a girl couldn’t wait, then she had to marry whoever made her pregnant. Call it divine intervention, call it Russian roulette.’
Worse still is the way in which women are penalised by a religion that operates on a system of breath-taking hypocrisy. The God worshipped by Maggie’s parents insists on neat hair but not on a mother supporting her daughter during a crisis. When a young Maggie sees her mother meticulously combing her hair, despite the fact that she is about to cover it up with a hat, she comments: ‘But no one sees through your hat, Mum’. God does, little one, replies her mother—and so do other women.
A particularly chilling scene involves Maggie’s parents pretending their daughter is simply not in their living room when she is, in fact, standing right in front of them. As she pleads with them to help her, they play the football on the radio louder and louder until they drown her out. When Maggie, defeated, goes upstairs to her bedroom she finds that it has been gutted.
Thank God, then, for the kindness of Maggie’s down-to-earth sister-in-law Jean, a baker who allows Maggie to stay above her place of work when she is cast out by her awful family. Garrulous Jean smokes, talk in a thick Scots dialect and offers Maggie respite from the harrowing events of her life: ‘It’s my own fault, Jean. If I hadn’t let myself be—’, says Maggie, blaming herself for her troubles. ‘Dinna talk daft,’ replies Jean. ‘That’s the wey men talk, but we ken better.’ Maggie, understandably, finds herself ‘storing up Jean’s cheerfulness inside her’ like an antidote.
When we hear how Maggie got pregnant in the first place—inside a thoroughly unpleasant man’s car—we realise she is really not to blame for her predicament:
|The smell of the leather seats, the heavy rain clattering onto the thin metal roof only inches above her head. The offer of whisky from his hip flask […] The memory made her want to gag, to turn away like she was still trying to avoid the man’s lips, to squirm away from his touch.|
Another upsettingly rape‐like encounter occurs when Norrie, a nasty acquaintance of Maggie’s, forces alcohol into her mouth and clamps his hand over it: ‘Guid lass’, he says. ‘We’ll hae some fun nou, you and me.’ When he realises that the struggling Maggie is pregnant his response is predictably caustic: ‘Fuck’s sake, Maggie. Fuck’s sake. Up the stick, an yer making me work fer it? Ye fucking keelie! […] Fucking hoor!’
And it’s not just men who attack Maggie. When she tries to better herself by getting a job in an office, a young female worker sabotages her chances with a few choice words: ‘Indicating Maggie with a nod of her head, Snooty Junior gave an emphatic cough, then leant down to whisper something into her boss’s ear.’ When Maggie leaves her baby in Woodstock House, an establishment which shelters babies before offering them up for adoption, she is told by the women working there that abandoning her baby is the best option for all concerned: ‘Getting upset like this would only make things worse, they told her. Always best to be separated as soon as possible. It was easier that way. Easier for everyone.’
Maggie is told to ‘forget all about’ her son; as if that were humanly possible. She is forbidden to breastfeed him, an infuriating command which goes against nature. Powerless, she is told by the women of Woodstock House: ‘[…] we’ve been very patient with you, letting you come and go as you please, letting you take him for a quick tour round the block from time to time …’, and, finally, is given no further access to her baby.
But Maggie is not just a one‐note victim in all this. She shows flashes of strength and defiance that are joyful to witness. After her parents’ rejection of her, Maggie, tormented by the relentless tick of their grandfather clock, snaps off its pendulum (with pleasingly castration‐like symbolism) and throws it in the sea: ‘Up into the air it rose, glittering as it arced briefly in the afternoon sun, suspended motionless for an instant before falling straight down into the blue‐green depths.’ When she hears her callous mother’s voice inside her head saying You’ve made your bed, now you have to lie on it she responds triumphantly: ‘”I will,” she heard herself reply out loud, “just watch me!”‘
Maggie seeks and finds employment in Fusco’s Fish Restaurant on Gorgie Road by displaying a similar level of gumption. She walks ‘straight in’ to the chip shop and bags herself a job, displaying little timidity. When the women of Woodstock House forbid her to breastfeed her baby she simply ‘shift(s) Tom to her other breast’. She uses fake personas and weaves a web of lies in order to gain a better job: ‘[…] during the week when she visited Tom at Woodstock House she’d say she was out at Gogarburn visiting her invalid husband; at the weekends she’d say she was going to Flotterstone to see Tom. A bit complicated, but couldn’t be helped.’ She proves herself to be a cunning and single‐minded survivor.
Alongside the plight of women, the plight of the elderly is tackled throughout Ghost Moon. When Maggie finds a suitable room to rent she walks in to find the remnants of the past inhabitant’s life:
|The dead woman’s bed stood in the corner. Opposite was a family‐sized tombstone of a wardrobe that reeked of shoes, old clothes and camphor. The top of the dresser was a clutter of postcards, photographs, some letters in a rack, a comb, nailfile, a Present from Dunbar ashtray; wisps of greyish hair were tangled among the bristles of the hairbrush. Maggie dumped the lot into an old tartan shopping bag she found hanging behind the door, to go out in the next bin collection.|
A whole life reduced to rubbish.
The care home in which present‐day Maggie lives also highlights this plight: ‘High‐backed armchairs lined up against the day‐room walls. Meals, meds, bath, bed […] The sky no longer yours. The TV that’s always on.’ The atmosphere of the old folk’s home is evoked with olfactory explicitness: ‘the overheated hall, into the combined smells of floral air‐freshener, yesterday’s macaroni cheese, urine, today’s stew and vegetables, laundry, disinfectant.’ Days bleed into one another with cloying monotony: ‘Thursday? Monday? Saturday? Different names for the one same day that slides backwards and forwards along one same week that never comes to an end, but keeps starting over keeps starting over keeps starting over …’
Butlin’s first‐person portrayal of Maggie’s struggles with dementia is moving and, at times, distressing. As we enter into Maggie’s head we feel her terror:
|Struggling to get to your feet, pointing your finger at the screen: “That poor, poor woman. CAN’T SOMEDOBY DO SOMETHING? CAN’T SOMEBODY HELP HER? HELP HER HELP HER HELP HER!” Next moment it’s all turned to horse‐racing and a red‐faced man talking into a microphone. Which is nothing much, so you sit down again.|
The horror of one’s own mind becoming an unreliable place is, for some, worse than death.
In split‐time books such as this there is usually a narrative thread preferred by the reader, and that thread (personally speaking) is usually the one set in the past. Butlin makes a sort of virtue of this imbalance by immersing his plot in the past, breaking it up with interludes set in the here‐and‐now which serve to highlight the themes of the meatier historical narrative. These interludes avoid tediousness thanks largely to Butlin’s poetic knack for stylish brevity. Tom’s point of view is less engaging than Maggie’s, but when we get a first‐person insight into the elderly Maggie’s situation the sadness of her present scenario is revealed by the way it slices cruelly into her thoughts of the past. Thinking of Michael, her great love, Maggie daydreams:
|You’ll know him by the touch of his fingertips upon your face, their gentleness, his sightless eyes brimming with—
“Med time, Mrs Stewart.”
Such weighty themes are buoyed by Butlin’s gem‐like style of writing. His use of imagery is consistently playful, injecting light into the darkness of his protagonist’s situation. Whether he is describing Maggie’s bed as a pie (‘she could hardly wait to climb in under that welcoming crust and get baked to sleep’) or linking her longing for rest with the drudgery of her work in the chip shop (‘she’d stay in bed and enjoy a double‐shift of deep‐fried sleep’) his prose elevates the story into pleasurable territory. He captures the atmosphere and geography of 1950s Edinburgh, its streets and trams and shops, with panache, and whilst the subject matter is fraught with sorrow, Butlin’s stylish writing means the painful events of Ghost Moon, though never less than affecting, can be read with relish.
Creative Writing PhD student
The University of Edinburgh
Ghost Moon by Ron Butlin is published by Salt, 2014.