Thursday, 10 May 2007

Book Review - Fresh by Mark McNay

Clean cut tragedy fresh from the streets of Glasgow

A native Scot, Mark McNay graduated from a creative writing course with distinction in 2003, after a failed electrical engineering course and fifteen years of doing odd jobs. Last month his debut novel, Fresh, won the Arts Foundation New Fiction Award 2007, and he has since won another Arts Foundation award to buy him time to work on his next novel.

Fresh follows a day in the life of Sean O’Grady, a diligent family man, as he attempts to find a grand of money entrusted to him by his violent elder brother Archie, on the day of Archie’s release from prison. McNay’s simple prose slides effortlessly between the unfolding events of Sean’s working day in a chicken factory, and flashbacks to the O’Gradys in childhood, nurturing a growing notion of the relationship between the brothers and a sense of the rising panic experienced by Sean as he struggles to reassemble the money he owes. The very classical contrast between Sean as the innately ‘good’ brother, and Archie, who is described as harbouring horrific and sometimes very graphic malice, is complicated by Sean’s distorted sense of morality, which contributes to the likeable realism of this character and the overall effectiveness of the plot.

McNay brings together unpretentious language, short sentences and an uncomplicated plot to very effectively convey Sean’s gentle humanity, his honest love for his family, and his somewhat inexorable downfall at the hands of his brother. The sometimes painfully beautiful simplicity of the narrative lends itself to both heart-warming humour and understated, gut-wrenching horror, whilst still retaining an attention for detail that renders Sean’s environment acutely imaginable.

It is perhaps this same uncluttered style that makes Fresh a rather put-downable novel. Not overtly comic at any point, it lacks a certain wit that results in quite a dark rendition of life on the poverty line in wintry Scotland. The precision of rolling a cigarette is described countless times: a repeated device used to express the mundanity of life without money or aspiration, an idea that is also expressed through Sean’s frequent retreat into his daydreams. Better described as ‘gritty’ than ‘fresh’, McNay’s first novel is a Shakespearean tragedy that seeps from the labouring pores of one of Glasgow’s most oppressed districts.

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