Mina, Denise. Garnethill.

NY: Little, Brown, 1998.

I’ve heard good things about this author for a decade but somehow hadn’t gotten around to reading any of her books. This debut novel, however, will have me lining up all her more recent work. Actually, I picked it up in part because all the Scots authors I’ve read — people like Rankin and McCall Smith — are staunch Edinburghers and those people have their own very particular view of what they believe goes on in Glasgow. I decided it was time to get the Glaswegian take on things.

Maureen O’Donnell’s closest relatives completely rewrite the definition of “dysfunctional family.” She was abused as a child by her father, who took the bank book and disappeared when he was found out. Her mother, Winnie, who is in complete denial about the abuse, is a manipulative alcoholic, who plays off her four grown children against each other, lies to all of them, and carries imagined grudges forever. Maureen’s brother, Liam, is a successful drug dealer, her sister, Una, can’t talk about any of this, and her other sister, Marie, is an unrepentant Thatcherite. (She and her husband were successful bankers, but their bank folded and now they’re huddled in a cramped bedsit, still professing Toryism.) Maureen herself is a depressive who had a breakdown as a result of all that had happened to her and who spent time in a mental ward. She’s dedicated to frequent heavy drinking, too. It’s a family tradition, she says. In fact, even with a university degree in art history, she describes herself as “rough as a badger’s backside.” And all of this against the background of an economically depressed city built mostly of concrete, which is not generally a happy, smiling sort of place to begin with, not even compared to the rest of Scotland.

Maureen has been seeing an older man, a therapist — not her therapist, technically, but in the same clinic, and he has access to her medical files, all of which is a major ethical failing — and, having finally discovered he has a wife, she’s getting ready to drop him. And then she wakes up one morning badly hung over and finds him tied to a chair and brutally murdered in the living room of her small flat. She calls the police, not because she’s a good citizen, particularly, but simply because she’s desperate. And it all goes downhill for her from there. The DI on the case is an officious bully looking for the easy solution (Maureen, obviously) and not very interested in extending the investigation. Liam, not at all the violent sort of criminal, is under scrutiny, too. And only her long-time close pal, Leslie, takes her side. (Her mother and sisters all seem to assume Maureen did it.)

Leslie is a beautifully imagined character, an assumed hard case on a motorcycle who wears her public persona like armor. She’s managing a shelter for battered women and has an extremely low opinion of virtually all men (with the exception of Liam), and she takes Maureen’s side unreservedly. And the two young women decide they’ll have to solve the case themselves, if only for Maureen’s protection. Or maybe it’s just that she can’t leave things alone.

Mina has a great ear for the language, tossing out bits of scintillating imagery on almost every page. Glasgow is also a featured character and you have to wonder why Maureen, especially after she discovers her long departed father is back in town, doesn’t just chuck it and move to London, or even the States. Or at least to Edinburgh. This is a book that will involve you from the first chapter and keep you focused until the last page.


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