The Book: The Blade Artist by Irvine Welsh. (2016) Published by Jonathan Cape. 288 pages. ISBN:9780224102155
I will admit to somewhat rejoining the Irvine Welsh/Trainspotting bandwagon since the long awaited sequel to Danny Boyle’s seminal 1996 film was released at the end of January.
It was about 10 years ago when I was finishing my GCSEs that I was smuggling an illicit copy of that first, monumental film into the house and the DVD player, not unlike it had actually been the illegal, tarry opiate that plays such an integral role in the film. I was instantly transfixed. The gritty pseudo-realism struck a cord and I had no option but to head to my local Waterstone’s at the first opportunity to pick up a copy of the (not age-restricted) book on which the film had been based. As a 15/16 year old living in the sedate Isle of Man, knowing only a blended Kilmarnock/Glasgow vernacular and having no inclination to go through the drug and violence riddled tribulations of the now familiar main cast of characters, it was not by any means, the easiest of reading experiences. It left a lasting impression. It was revelatory to imbibe such naturalistic and real storytelling. It was at its most relatable because of how unrelatable it was.
In the wake of the fever pitch for T2: Trainspotting I stumbled across The Blade Artist on a successful sculptor living in sunny California: Jim Francis. It is no spoiler to reveal that this none other than the reformed Francis James Begbie. To me he was always the most engagingly psychotic figure in literature. I just had to jump into his seemingly new world. What was new? What remained the same?
With a beautiful, sun-bronzed and respectable Californian wife and two gorgeous daughters to dote on there seems to be nothing left of the old Begbie who effortlessly terrorised Leith and wider Edinburgh. He has found new outlets for his dangerous self-indulgence by investing himself in his family and in art.
There are early glimpses though that all may not be as tranquil in the mind and actions as it may appear. Within the first few pages we catch sight of the unintimitable Begbie when he stands up to a pair of threatening beachcombers who choose his wife and daughters to threaten. He admits soon after getting home that he headed back to that beach and set their car on fire after making sure they weren’t in it. A huge step forward for someone who has grievously hurt many a man or woman for much, much less.
The turning point in the narrative comes not long after when Begbie takes a call from his sister explaining that his estranged son, Sean, has been found dead in his Edinburgh flat. Though he clearly has never entertained any relationship with any of his children back in Scotland, Begbie will now cross the pond back to where his reputation for violence remains a stout part of his character.
Intertwined with this main plot are a set of recurring chapters. ‘The Delivery Boy’ charts the younger Begbie and his family roots in extreme violence from a young age while ‘The Dance Partner’ gives the contrasting movement towards a more functional and even respectable Begbie as crafted through the romance with his no wife Melanie. She spotted his talent as an artist while counselling in UK prisons and as his success in the art world soared, so too did his love with this stunning younger woman.
These chapters are what gives this book its heart and soul – the twisting and turning game of questioning whether or not Begbie is really a changed man. They give an insight not only into Begbie’s personal history but also how his internal battle to be a better man is raging throughout this new adversity.
To further complicate this internal battle of resolution it becomes predictably evident that Sean has been murdered and the key underworld figures of Edinburgh feel that Begbie will, and indeed should, become involved. Alongside the established reputation and authority of ‘Power’ we are introduced to the new threat on the block, Anton Miller – an up and coming Edinburgh mob boss who has a lot of fingers pointed at him for the death of Sean Begbie.
As Begbie starts to try to find out what happened to his boy we see him torn between his native mantra of ‘hurt now, think later’ and his American faux-yogic breathing practices which keep him apparently calm. His wife Mel meanwhile has her own battle of conscience reaping havoc on her mind as she has to deal with police involvement about the disappearance of two young thugs who attacked her on a beach. An old admirer from school who is now a police officer starts to put pressure on her while Begbie is in Scotland. This is a nice touch to show the vastly contrasting backgrounds which gave rise to the current conflict in Begbie’s new life.
It is a book which ultimately unfolds with tremendous pace, reading more like literary crime fiction than any Irvine Welsh I have read thus far. IT seems to suit the narrative to a tee, giving room for the influx of change going on within our protagonists to be blatantly self-evident rather than forced as it easily could have been. The use of Scots vernacular may challenge non-native readers but it would undoubtedly be worth the perseverance to become immersed with the contradictory cultures at play in this book.
The real art to this work is the ability to overlay something of surprise into an often predictable genre. There are several inventive and genuinely intriguing twists in the last 60-70 pages alone. It all leads to what I found to be a truly revelatory ending that gives the reader one last surprise. Unsurprisingly, however, is that it leaves you begging for more from Scottish literature’s most lovable and psychotic rogue.
The Dram: Bowmore 15 Year Old – Laimrig
This was something of a unique and lucky find in my collection. Though I am not normally a fan of the peat heavy Islay whisky characteristics there is something almost dangerously subtle about this Cask Strength edition that is exclusive to The Whisky Shop. Bought for me as a present last Hogmanay it has a subtle forest fruit taste that is then followed by a delightfully palatable smoky finish, with an excellent linger on the tongue. A beautiful dram that does much to dismiss the myth that all Islay whiskies are peat monsters. The fact that this subtle fruit has such a tricky little smoky undertone, I feel, illustrates the new Begbie as well as any whisky could.