A Jolly Hunter with a Mixed Bag of Grouse

This is my review of The Return of John Macnab by Andrew Greig.

This modern update of John Buchan's 1920s classic recounts the attempt of three men who have become jaded with life to spice it up with a wager to poach game "by fair means" and return it to three large Scottish estates, including Balmoral: the loser in each case will pay a donation to charity and cast a vote for "the political party of the winner's choice". You need to suppress the question of why on earth any estate owner should honour a one-sided wager imposed on him. Also, apart from a desire to expose the shortcomings of the laws on access to the Highlands, aren't there a host of more worthwhile challenges to achieve?

The plot is quite intriguing, with an unpredictable yet satisfying ending, and the author conveys his deep knowledge and love of the Scottish Highlands, where the blue hills resemble hump-backed whales.

Greig becomes at times the all-knowing narrator, observing that a scene may not have occurred quite as described, or that a certain character who is mentioned in passing will never appear, and that the young daughter of one of the men will remember in seventy years' time the nostalgic pleasure of listening to the adults plotting how to escape from the gillies with the poached game. This writing ploy only served to distance me from the drama.

The word "nostalgia" is key, along with "sentimentality" and "escapism", which may be the book's appeal for many readers, but I felt with growing unease that I was reading a mixture of "The Famous Five Never Grow Up and Go to Scotland" and a male take on a "Mills and Boon" romance, in which the female love interest is a jolly tomboy who holds her drink but can act the femme fatale when required, with something deeper and finer underlying all this. This plucky heroine Kirsty, whom I sensed I was meant to love, irritated me continually, such as when she kept calling herself "a silly old tart" and, when she should have been totally incapacitated by drink, leaping up to perform old pop songs uninvited to an apparently enraptured pub audience and guess what, her maybe love interest, the reserved and moody Neil can spring into a vaudeville act at the drop of a hat too!

The conversations between the female characters struck me as particularly unnatural and cringe-making plus many small points grated, such as the unlikely fact that dishy, middle-class dark horse Neil is godfather to dyed-in-the-wool left-wing agitator Murray's daugher Eve. This seemed to me to reveal the author's unconscious assumption of conventional, "establishment" values which the book purports to flout – I'm taking this too seriously, I know.

The suspense depends a good deal on revealing only slowly, or not until the last minute, what is afoot, but the resultant short, fragmented scenes cutting between various characters make the narrative tedious when it is unclear what is going on for pages on end.

Eventually, in the middle of a bitty account of an attempt to capture some grouse, I lost patience and skimmed to the end to be able to discuss the novel at a book group.

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

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