There has been much huffing and sighing, both public and private, at the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence. Those resolutely opposed to the idea of Scotland parting company with the rest of the United Kingdom complain that the question was settled in 2014 and that the result of the Brexit referendum in 2016 does not constitute a reason for revisiting the matter. Even among those who take the opposite view − that the very change of circumstance specified in the SNP's 2016 election manifesto has come to pass and that therefore another referendum is required − there is a certain ennui, a worry that the country may not have the energy or tolerance for more division and debate.
At one level, everybody wants this thing to be settled so that they can get on with the rest of their lives: it’s agreeing what will settle it that is problematic. Meanwhile, the media and the politicians are hardly likely to abandon the table upon which so much enticing fare − some of it new, some of it cauld kail het again − remains to be picked over.
At such a time as this, perhaps it is worth turning from the din of contested facts, opinions and predictions in the printed and online media, to see if other reading material is more enlightening or even just a source of relief. What, for example, has recent fiction to say about the experience of the 2014 referendum? One book that seems to me to have engaged with it successfully is 'Borrowed Time', the third novel by Jenni Daiches. Here, the referendum is not centre-stage in the lives of the characters, but runs in the background, a quietly persistent question that must, eventually, be answered. It is important, it is taken seriously, especially by the main character, but it is not all-consuming, and thus the novel reflects how the independence question fitted into the lives of most people in the months leading up to 18 September 2014 − and how it may do so again.
At this stage, I should confess that I know the author well. Jenni Daiches is an astonishingly eclectic writer, who has only recently taken to fiction: her previous novel, 'Forgive', was also quietly impressive. Writing as Jenni Calder, she has produced works of history (on, for example, Scots emigrants to North America), biography, literary criticism, memoir and poetry (I published a pamphlet of her poems 12 years ago). Her 1980 biographical study of Robert Louis Stevenson is full of illumination and insight, and in 1997 she published the definitive biography of Naomi Mitchison. She worked for more than 20 years at the National Museum of Scotland, for many of them as head of publications.
This, then, is someone who has engaged intellectually and emotionally with Scotland for a long time: she has lived here since 1971, but was born in the USA, growing up there and in England. She has lived in Kenya, travelled all over the world, and throughout her life has been conscious of overlapping Jewish, American, Scottish and English identities, to say nothing of her strong sense of herself as a woman and her lifelong commitment to gender equality. Such a writer is likely to have interesting things to say when it comes to the unfinished business of Scotland's constitutional future.
'Borrowed Time' is about characters easy to believe in and hard not to care about. A year after the sudden death of her husband Tim, Sonia Billings sells their Yorkshire house and moves to Argyll, making her new home − with her two dogs and, later, a kitten − in a converted railway carriage. Her three surviving children − two in England and one in New Zealand − think she has taken leave of her senses. Why on earth has she suddenly gone to this distant place where she knows nobody? Sonia's mother was Scottish, her parents met at the top of Ben Lomond, but perhaps the strongest pull northwards is that her eldest child, Jake, died in a climbing accident in the Highlands.
Sonia settles into her new existence, learning how to be alone and independent, making new friends but keeping other folk at a distance. Her 70th birthday will fall on the day of the referendum. Conscious of the biblical span of threescore years and 10 and of the randomness of death's removals, Sonia feels that she will soon be, if she isn't already, on borrowed time. And so, much of the novel is a revisiting of key moments of a full, if largely conventional, life. There has been love, disappointment, devastating loss, a youthful engagement with CND, a career in teaching literature limited by domestic responsibilities (Daiches is very good on the competing frustrations and joys of being a mother), and now there is a decision to make about a country to which she has only just come.
This constant movement between present and past happens in a very fluid way. There are no chapters as such, just breaks and occasional dates to indicate where the reader is being taken next. Some of the back story is narrated by Sonia, some is in the third person and more detached: possibly the narrator in these sections is still Sonia, but standing somewhere outside herself looking in, looking back. There are switches between present and past tenses, and Daiches has dispensed with inverted commas for direct speech. None of this is carelessly or lazily done. On the contrary, it creates a quite deliberate blurring of borders between characters and between times.
Isn't this how the histories of our own lives come to us? Chunks of experience are lost entirely; some events seem massively significant at the moment of their happening, or only acquire meaning later; we are all, from the moment we are born, on borrowed time, and none of us knows how much more of it there is left in the bank. Realising this, Sonia Billings reaches a new level of understanding of who she was and who she is, but it is a partial understanding: 'I have a vote, but that is not the same as having the means to make a decision. I know that I am not, really, a part of this place. I know that however content I am, I never will be.' That last sentence is wonderfully ambiguous. The book is full of such delightful touches.
I don’t wish to misrepresent this profoundly humane work of fiction: it is about so much more than the 2014 referendum. That is almost tangential, but it is there nonetheless. Reading 'Borrowed Time' now, knowing what is ahead of us, is weirdly reassuring. Sonia goes into the polling booth at the end of the novel exactly as we all, really, went into it in 2014 and as we will next time, whenever that is. For it is not the facts and figures, the promises or prophecies of doom of the politicians that inform our decisions on these occasions. It is not the urgent voices in the media that persuade us to vote one way or the other. Yes, these things have their effects, but what really inform us are the accumulated knowledge, wisdom, doubts and convictions of our own lives. If you don’t think this is so, this fine novel may persuade you otherwise.
'Borrowed Time' by Jenni Daiches is published by Vagabond Voices