Monday, 5 May 2008

LibraryThing Book Review - "Fresh" by Mark McNay

Note to readers: This book was received as part of the Early Reviewer's Group on LibraryThing. My thanks to LT and the publishers for a copy of the book. This review can also be found on LT.

Fresh by Mark McNay
This gritty modern novel is set in present-day Glasgow, and charts one fateful day in Sean O’Grady’s life – the day when his wayward brother Archie is released from prison. This wouldn’t be a problem, except Sean was looking after some money for Archie and he has spent it. We spend the day with Sean, working in the chicken factory (from whence the novel gets its title) sharing his fears, daydreams and increasingly desperate attempts to obtain the cash to pay off his brother.

The concept of the entire novel lasting only one day of Sean’s life is an interesting one, but fell a little flat for me. It seems to drag in places, and the reader’s concept of time can start to slip – there seems to be too much happening at one point, and not enough at others. What exacerbates this is the use of flashbacks to illustrate Sean’s relationship with Archie, and Archie’s slow slide into serious crime, drugs and violence. However, these are vital to the plot, and illustrate how one can be exposed to such influence, without ever totally succumbing to them. Sean manages to rise above Archie’s behaviour, and even though he is bullied into helping him at times, never falls fully into the same trap, instead concentrating on his work, his family and a few pints at the weekend.

A couple of technical points. The novel features a lot of dialogue between characters which is written in Glaswegian dialect and pronunciation and uses virtually no punctuation to define speech (such as quotation marks.) This can be confusing at first, and the reader who is unfamiliar with Glasgow speech and dialect may get a little lost at times. The conversations between characters are terse, partly through their familiarity and partly down to the speech pattern of this part of the world. However, it adds an edge of reality and gives a real flavour to the writing. The author is obviously very familiar both with Glasgow and its people, though it is unlikely that Glasgow Council will be using this book as an advertising tool any time soon. It paints a picture of a life lived on the edge of crime, poverty and violence, of a man trying to do right by his family when all around is temptation to take the easier path, and of a dirty, grey, uncaring city with a dark underbelly of housing schemes, neglect and drugs.

Overall I enjoyed this novel. There are a couple of moments where you fear the author is going to follow a well-trodden and overly obvious path, but he veers away and leads you in a different direction, culminating in an ending that is both shocking and utterly inevitable. The novel, at its best, positively reeks of Sean’s fear, his hand-rolled cigarettes and the abscessed chickens in the factory. This is not a novel for the squeamish or the vegetarian.

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