In the publishing marketplace Helen Lamb's name isn't as well known among Scottish women writers as, for example, Ali Smith or A L Kennedy, let alone Muriel Spark or the Bloody Scotland posse. Despite the many awards she won for her prose she wasn't prolific. But among the students on her various creative writing courses over her long career, she was a much loved tutor and mentor as well as an excellent writer.
Her sudden death at the end of March 2017, in her 60th year, came as a total shock to all who had benefited from her wise, carefully calibrated literary advice. She was no soft mark. Her critiques were thorough and deeply pondered over, whether you were perceived as going places or not. She was always on your side – nourishing and encouraging – while at the same time pointing out what wasn't working.
When she died, she left one volume of short stories ('Superior Bedsits', Polygon, 2001), a poetry collection, jointly written with her great friend, Magi Gibson ('Strange Fish', Duende, 1997) and one completed, but unpublished novel ('Three Kinds of Kissing', Vagabond Voices, 2018). Her surviving partner, Chris Powici, saw to its publication in a superior paperback edition with a vivid cover design by Mark Mechan.
Grace and Olive are growing up in a rural Scottish town on the main railway line linking Inverness and Aberdeen with Glagow. It's a town much like Dunblane in its pre-Thomas Hamilton days where Helen herself grew up and finally lived. The story, told throughout by Grace, opens in 1969 when the girls are still at primary school. They're standing together on the railway bridge as an inter-city train roars beneath them. They let rip in response. Although Olive is older by 10 months they're close friends and live opposite each other in full view across a square. Four years later everything has changed and Olive has disappeared.
In another writer's hands this would be a crime novel. But that wasn't Helen's aim. This is a novel about relationships, shifting loyalties and secrets. It's also about loss, grief and growing up. Neither girl gets along well with her mother. Grace's works night shifts as a nurse and drinks too much sherry, which she conceals in aspirin bottles in her handbag. Olive's cleans her house obsessively and knocks her daughter's head against the kitchen wall when she spills the cornflakes.
And there's a third mother-daughter dysfunction. Olive isn't allowed to visit her maternal grandmother who lives in the same town with her Ukrainian husband and his vast collection of clocks. Her grandmother only visits once a year on Olive's birthday, and is reluctantly admitted, bringing a handknitted garment as a gift for Olive. Her mother won't let her wear it, immediately putting it in a sack for the ragman to take away.
The novel is by turns poignant and funny. The language ranges from sharp school girl slang to exquisite lyricism. It fits into a tradition of Scottish domestic fiction, like Nancy Brysson-Morrison's 'The Gowk Storm' or Nan Shepherd's 'The Quarry Wood', two much underrated 20th-century Scottish novels, but there's a different tone to it. This is a time of social turbulence and change. America is preoccupied with its moon landings. The girls potter and ramble by themselves about the town and the surrounding wood, which is given the biblical name of Pisgah, the mountain from which Moses viewed the Promised Land.
Grace tries to make sense of everything. Her parents' troubled relationship. Her father's musical ambitions and roving eye. Olive's schmoozing of a new neighbour who gets her a Saturday job, her disloyal interest in a new, wealthier pupil, her determination to leave school as soon as she can and escape her mother's abusive control. And between 1969 and 1973 something has happened that has broken the friendship between the two girls. Something terrible, that the author takes her time to reveal.
Grace is no angel. Wary and observant, she is both cocky and sensitive. When Olive disappears and the police come wondering whether Grace can throw any light on what might have happened to her, she refuses to tell what she knows. Consumed by loss, she bunks off school in an attempt to find where Olive might be, wandering over familiar territory that with new housing developments has become unfamiliar, less easy to access.
It's a jewel of a book. Its genesis seems to have unfurled over a considerable time. Two stories in 'Superior Bedsits' prefigure it. One bearing the same name as the novel is about the shifting loyalties between two pre-adolescent girls and how they try to codify and prepare for things, like kissing, that both scare and intrigue them. The other called 'A Good Ear' references the relationship between a musical father and his less adept daughter. The author's meticulous attention to the flavour of speech and accurate detail of the time brings the texture of Grace's conflicted experience alive. She is that girl. Perhaps she was. And so are we reading it.