Where to begin? Reviewing ‘Lanark’ by Alastair Gray


I was so excited to find a second-hand copy of Gray’s novel ‘Lanark: A life in four books’ when I was up in Glasgow last year.  It may not have had the cover I’d previously associated with this Scottish classic, but, in addition to the rather perfect cover image Gray, it also had the traditional Lanark prints inside the book:


Coupled with the wonderful illustrations, the musty and rather nasty second-hand book smell which accompanied my reading on the train all the way back to London gave a thoroughly appropriate ambience to the whole experience.  Lanark is ambitious, dark and convoluted but it was never intended to be a pleasant read.

Gray’s artwork probably does a better job of explaining his novel my feeble words ever could, but I’ll give it a go.  Lanark indeed tells a ‘life in four books,’ but confusingly starts literally in medias res, opening with book 3, which is set in a dystopian Glasgow; there is no sunshine to penetrate the gloom and some very odd diseases afflict the lost and dispossessed inhabitants.

The amnesiac protagonist, with no idea what or where he is, wanders through this alternate world buffeted by fate, fortune and people becoming covered with dragon-hide or crying mouths (the symbolism is relentless and audacious, but rarely subtle).  Taking the name of Lanark because he saw it written on an advertisement in a train, he will embark on adventures that will take him to the edges of existence – up to heaven itself (Edinburgh).

I loved the surrealism of Lanark’s narrative and was thoroughly engaged until suddenly book 3 came to an end, and I was faced with the novel’s prologue, followed by books 1 and 2.  These are set in real post-war Glasgow and feature a young protagonist who is even more similar to Gray than his book 3 alter ego.  Duncan Thaw is ailing, selfish and talented and while I would ordinarily have found his life story very readable with its accomplished balancing between the engaging and the repulsive, I really wanted to get back to Lanark, where everything Duncan experienced and felt is reflected back in heightened and hallucinogenic splendour.

Lanark is a dazzlingly accomplished book – weird, wonderful, and when I say it’s as good as the illustrations I hope I’m giving a sense of the scale and oddness of it all.  If you haven’t read it yet, it really should go on the list for 2019.  If, like me you have, you may also be joining me in contemplating a re-read.

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7 Responses to Where to begin? Reviewing ‘Lanark’ by Alastair Gray

  1. It’s an incredible book, isn’t it? I loved it, though I’m sure I missed most of the symbolism! One day I shall have to re-read.

    • I really enjoyed the sense that I was only getting about 30% of the references – it means any future re-read is going to reveal whole new layers, without diminished the very real enjoyment I got on the first encounter 🙂

  2. Ste J says:

    On page one, I knew it was going to be a wonderful read and it didn’t disappoint. There is so much more going on than I appreciated at the time but brief dips into the text subsequently have really encouraged a reread.

    • I agree about that sense that you’re only getting the tip of the ice-berg on first reading. What’s so impressive is how enjoyable it is even while knowing that you’re missing so much!

  3. Pingback: When it’s hard to find words, ‘The White Book’ by Han Kang | Shoshi's Book Blog

  4. Izzy says:

    You’ve beat me to it, I still haven’t read it ! (I mentionned it to you when I bought it, must be nearly two years ago now). Shame on me. I think I was afraid because it had been compared to Joyce’s work…would you say the comparison is appropriate ?

    • Only to an extent. I think if you enjoy Joyce you’ll enjoy Lanark, but it’s not a one to one comparison, because while Gray plays games with structure he does not mess about with language in the way that Joyce does. I suspect far more people finish Lanark than Ulysses! They are both imaginative and very self-conscious novels of the city though, so I can see where the comparison comes from.

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