I had high hopes for Walking the Lights by Deborah Andrews. It’s been shortlisted for this year’s The Not the Booker Prize; it’s published by an independent Scottish publishing house that gave us last year’s The Not the Booker Prize winner (Fishnet by Kirsten Innes); it’s set in Glasgow, and its blurb promises that it ‘perfectly evokes 90s Britain and those living on the margins, while others prosper’. A winning combination, I thought.
However, Walking the Lights was a total disappointment. It started off well, quickly setting the scene and the tone for our protagonist, Maddie. We learn, all in the first 20 pages, that Maddie’s dad isn’t around, her boyfriend is a loser, her mum’s remarried a thug, she’s just finished acting school, she’s unemployed and any cash she has goes on dope.
She rolled a single skinner then poured boiling water into the mug. The fridge was nearly empty – a few sauce bottles and a packet of bacon, Callum’s. No milk. But Mike said he’d borrowed money off Gnasher. Later they’d have a full cooked breakfast. There might even be enough to buy shampoo. She’d used washing up liquid last time, now even that had run out.
Andrews has an eye for detail and uses it to excess to paint for us Maddie’s Glasgow. By the end of the book we have toured almost the whole city and its landmarks (‘the M8 was jammed and the journey slow, but finally she caught a glimpse of George Square. It was strung with Christmas lights’), a lot of well-known drinking establishments (Brel, Clatty Pat’s, Bar 91, Blackfriars) and we’ve been up and down many of the city’s roads from the West End through to the East End, and some bits in the middle. We’ve also travelled with Maddie to Stirling, Edinburgh, Lenzie and Loch Lomond. We’ve been to a hogmanay party and watched Tony Blair win the 1997 General Election.
In the end, the hammering detail about the city was just too much. Andrews needs to take a leaf out of James Kelman‘s book (in particular How Late It Was, How Late), or even Denise Mina‘s. These writers can portray Glasgow so that it churns away in the background, giving the narrative further depth and yet also delivering a different perspective on the city. I felt like Deborah Andrew’s Glasgow was the metaphorical equivalent of a garish Scottish souvenir shop on the high street, rather than Kelman’s pokey wee pub down the road.
But my biggest problem with this book was that nothing happened. I’m okay with Nothing Happening. I just finished and quite liked Our Souls At Night where largely, Nothing Happened. But if you’re going to have a book where Nothing Happens, there has to be something else, otherwise it’s just 300 pages of empty dialogue. For a large part of Walking the Lights I felt like I was trapped in a narrative loop of: Maddie wandering around Glasgow, Maddie going in and out of other people’s flats, Maddie scrounging for a joint, Maddie turning to her friends for support, Maddie feeling despondent, Maddie wandering around Glasgow, Maddie going in and out of other people’s flats…. Nothing Happened, in every sense.
There was something of a climax towards the end of the book which enlivened it a little, but even in the most dramatic scenes there was still a lot of Maddie wandering around Glasgow. And unfortunately, the very ending of the book bordered on a cliche.
Deborah Andrews describes her book as a feminist Withnail and I. I think she’s pitched her book a little high – I didn’t get a lot of feminist insight, or in fact, any insight into much at all. I didn’t learn anything new about ‘living on the margins’ in 90s Scotland, what it’s like to be a struggling actor or how it might be like to come from a poor, fractured family. At the beginning, I did get a kick out of revisiting the sights of Glasgow and beyond, but given this was largely all his book left me with, I could’ve just read Lonely Planet’s Glasgow or perhaps the Walking in Scotland edition. Either would’ve been more engaging and they would’ve delivered what their blurbs promised.