I used to have a mix tape that was guaranteed to change my mood. Grumpy? It would bring pep. Joyful? It wouldn’t last. River Clyde is a little bit like that. It both fixes you and unmoors you at the same time. It touches on acceptance, discovery, healing, friendship and living in the moment. It’s the latest in a series of crime novels, and it’s completely uninterested in the crime contained.
For Chastity Riley, Stepanovic and the others, the greater crime came in the previous novel, Hotel Cartagena, in which their colleague and friend Faller was killed. Their grief is profound and locks away their spirit. When Chastity receives a letter that causes her to abandon the others and head to Glasgow, those who remain find they are even more broken without their force of nature. Hamburg – or at least their Hamburg – is lessened; they are lessened. What makes a city, or any kind of community, without its people?
Glasgow, Chastity, discovers, is made of people with intent to be there but others who have drifted in. The city is inviting and not judgemental. It offers you a mystic stag, Johnny Cash, world weariness and rage, whimsy and relief. And its river, an omniscient being that looks over the city with benevolence but with absolute respect for its inhabitants’ free will. It’s all dreamy and poetic and at times it’s so intense that I stop and start the book again for the very first time. I didn’t need to do that. Buchholz throws in so many random asides – from the impossibility of dancing to Travis through Harry Potter – that it’s hard to keep up. Later, you realise that this is entirely the point. We don’t have to keep up. We just have to be involved enough, but that enough is a product of our past and what we’re built for. I sat down mildly irritated (it had been a long day) to read the second half of the book and found that like my old mix tape, the community and random acquaintances that Chastity makes interacted with my soul, as they do with hers.
But for all that Chastity’s hard living has made the city an ideal backdrop for her survival, it is only when she heads for the small town of Garelochhead that she finds that still, small voice that can cut through the many layers of defence that she has constructed over the years. Anyone familiar with spiritual or religious ritual and imagery will find much here to consider: a kind of baptism on Rannoch Moor (balanced by a more earthy incident with a bird and a coat), communion, confession/reconcilation and something that looks like commitment to another.
A book which remains steadfastly ambivalent about what is true and what is implied can be startlingly precise when it wants to be. I am interested in visiting Garelochhead, where the Anchor pub and the Perch cafe are not in reality right next door to each other, but still within walking distance. I want to know whether there is a bowl for tips, with ‘a note in need, little-girlish handwriting: Boris Johnson Hitman Fund’. I want to find out whether everyone ends up dancing, ‘dizzy with excitement’. And do you know what, if those things aren’t true, then it doesn’t matter. In going there, we may have opened ourselves up to something new. If we are alive, if we are in the moment, then amazing things can happen. It doesn’t even matter whether they are real.
Full marks to Simone Buchholz for this multi-layered novel which startles and surprises – and to Rachel Ward for a translation that allows the reader full access to the depths of Charity Riley’s heart.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy and to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation.