Experimental novels are often given something of a free pass when it comes to literary criticism. After all, who wants to stick their head above the parapet and point out the grating flaws of such a book if they face the ultimate put down from the country’s literati – that of ‘simply not getting it’.
Unfortunately, Da Happie Laand is one such experimental novel. Written by Robert Alan Jamieson, it was celebrated by those in the know on initial publication, being nominated for the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award in 2010, and the Creative Scotland Fiction Award 2011.
Beneath the numerous accolades lies a deceptively simple story – that of a young man’s search for his missing father on Zetland, a fictionalised Shetland. Interwoven in this narrative is a history of the Zetland community, pieced together from papers left in the possession of a retired minister by the young man shortly before he too disappeared.
The dual narrative structure is intriguing, and feels particularly appropriate here, allowing the Zetland community to be examined from two separate viewpoints, past and present. Personally, I would have liked to see the idea carried further, with Jamieson showing the reader his view of the future for such isolated communities.
Instead, the reader must make do with an unnecessarily thorough history of Zetland, combined with an unsatisfying mystery. It is here that the dual narrative ultimately falls down, as there is little to tie the distinct stories together. The strands are sufficiently independent to enable them to be read on their own, with neither contributing crucial information to the other. Consequently, it feels as though there is little pay off for the reader for slogging through the more dry sections of the book.
The chapters detailing the young man’s search for his father read much easier, but even these are not without their problems. Here, a variety of unusual techniques are used, the results of which are so grating that they completely remove the reader from the novel. Random words appear in bold throughout, as though the author is frightened the reader has forgotten about an important plot point, and each section ends with the final words trailing across several lines, as though the narrator was drifting away. While effective when used occasionally, it tends to lose the poetic effect when used repeatedly, and even becomes ridiculous when the author insists upon using it even though a particular chapter doesn’t call for it.
Such flaws make Da Happie Laand an unsuitable choice for anyone other than devoted readers of Scottish literature. Even such readers may find themselves tested by repeatedly used techniques which add little to the novel other than annoyance. Such a verdict may seem unduly harsh, however it should be borne in mind that it is strong characters and compelling stories which make books worth reading. Structural gimmicks are not enough.