Scabby Queen starts with a suicide. Ruth and her friend from way back, Clio, have breakfast in Ruth’s cottage. Clio drinks her tea but pushes away her toast. Ruth goes to work and comes home to find Clio dead. She dials 999. When the police arrive, she tells the policewoman that Clio had experienced periods of depression and mania. The paramedics arrive and bump the body down the stairs, denting the newly finished plasterwork. Clio leaves the building and Ruth is left with the aftermath.
Part of Kirstin Innes‘ second novel wrestles with the infuriating impossibility of trying to capture a life on a page. Cliodhna grew up in a Scottish mining village with a folk singer father. She was spotted on stage singing her protest song, “Rise Up”, in her late teens and it became a hit single. Early stardom left her with a profile that fuelled political campaigning but she also supported individual asylum seekers alongside her attempts to resurrect her musical career, her stuttering family relationships, her string of love affairs. So no wonder journalist Neil struggles to write her obituary: “How did you use words, black and white with a finite limit, slotting into a pre-designed space on a page, to describe what a person’s life had been?”
The reader learns about Clio from the perspective of some of the people who loved her. And Innes paints a compelling picture of a magnetic personality who never quite seems to get what she wants. Through her friend, Ruth, arts journalist Neil, her manager and then husband, Danny, her family, lovers, the women she befriended in a Brixton commune and a couple of beautifully painted cameo characters, the reader builds up a picture of a woman determined to make a difference. But how much did she exploit her fame and how much was she exploited?
Dancing around this central theme are other interlinked questions. Innes’ novel tracks the tension between people and state from the time of the miners’ strikes, the poll tax protests, the demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq thr0ugh to Scotland’s Independence Referendum and finally, bumps up against Brexit without ever feeling like a history lesson.
Scabby Queen – and the clue’s in the title – is also a thoughtful exploration of whether women can really make the life they’d like to in a world still too often weighted against them.
It’s a phenomenal tribute to the deftness of Innes’ prose that she packages up such weighty themes into such an artfully told story that first and foremost, is a brilliant read. The choreography involved in orchestrating the narrative from multiple perspectives but adroitly tying up all the ends after several hairpin plot twists, is immense. Innes started out as a journalist and this pays dividends in the elegantly succinct story-telling.
Whether you read this story for the characters, as a snapshot of Scotland over the fifty years of Clio’s life or as an exploration of how we might start to claw our way to a better world, you’ll likely be delighted whichever way.