If David F Ross played the church halls and small clubs in The Last Days of Disco and the major venues in The Rise and Fall of the Miraculous Vespas, then The Man Who Loved Islands is very much the stadium tour. This time the canvas is as far flung as China, Ibiza, Ailsa Craig…
In the prologue we have opening epigraphs from The Jam and Shakespeare (we get Mark Twain at the end of the book). David F Ross is a man who knows his literature; and his architecture; and his music (boy, does he know his music); and, in a sequence that could act as a great primer for anyone who wants to set up a fraudulent company, his contract law. A Renaissance writer, then. Or, if you prefer, a writer who would probably have told the Renaissance to get tae Falkirk and set up a legendary mandolin orchestra instead.
You can see it, can’t you? The rewriting of the mandolin orchestra repertoire, the opium sessions, the stashed Spanish gold, the escape of the orchestra’s clerk with all the takings, the last minute avoidance of the Spanish Inquisition, the lead mandolin ending his days under the name of Brother Grandolo in a remote monastery…
Sorry, got a bit carried away there (by the way, I’m sure a mandolin orchestra is a wonderful thing but never try to do a dress rehearsal for a new play when one of them’s rehearsing next door, that’s all I’m saying). Actually that’s a good example of what David’s writing does to me, it sets me off on imaginative flights of fancy. In fact, that’s probably one of the best things I can say about this book, and about David’s work generally. It lifts you up, it wakes up your imagination, it gives you ideas (and I’m not talking about the fraud, not at all, no way). Sure, he deals with serious topics: life; death; love; family. But he captures the underlying absurdity of life, the stupidity that typifies the human race, the innate humour that’s just there beneath the surface. So that somehow even the sad parts manage to be joyful at the same time. It’s feel-good fiction, but it’s make-you-think fiction at the same time. Mind you, if the image of a middle-aged man in a wheelchair being rescued from the sea by a man in an emerald green suit and a motorcycle helmet in a storm off Ailsa Craig doesn’t make you joyful and make you think, the copies of The Joy of Spreadsheets are on the shelf just over there…
The unfolding of David’s trilogy of Ayrshire novels (he’s going to need a collective title for the omnibus edition, by the way) has been an annual pleasure for the past three years (what on earth I’m going to read next March is already worrying me). The Man Who Loved Islands brings together the strands from the previous novels as the stories of the Disco Boys and The Miraculous Vespas converge through the unpredictable and scatalogical agency of Max Mojo (surely one of the funniest creations of modern comic fiction). The book moves back and forward in time to show us how Bobby and Joey have staggered into middle age with shattered families, stalled careers and monumental mid-life crises. On the way we get a potted history of the development of the club scene in Ibiza and Chinese urban development, combined with some pertinent observations of the hotel business.
There are some wonderful comic sequences such as Bobby and Hammy’s escape from Ibiza, and some moving descriptions of age, illness and post-traumatic stress. We also take in some iconic musical events such as Live Aid which are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the novel. Not everyone makes it to the end, but those that do seem to have rebuilt the relationships that matter and found a degree of peace, but in a way that doesn’t ignore the fact that none of us are going to get a happily ever after ending (as we’re helpfully reminded by the quoting of a certain Malcolm Middleton song early in the book).
Other reviewers on the blog tour are covering the plot in more detail so I’m not going to dwell on it, save to say that I love the way David weaves the strands together and keeps you turning the pages. His ear for dialogue remains as acute as ever and these books are just made for a film treatment. Actually I’d hold out for a TV series as the wealth of detail deserves more space than a film would give it. This isn’t another Tutti Frutti, there’s so much more to this story than that.
It’s been a real privilege to see David’s writing career take off and to see his wonderful creativity get the platform and the recognition it deserves. A big part of that is the amazing support of Karen Sullivan and Orenda Books, and it’s great to see their success growing in pace with David’s. Sincere thanks to both of them, and here’s to many more great reads.
David’s books are so much richer for the music than runs through them, and the addition of the playlist at the end of the book is truly inspired. I may be the same generation but I was never into music to the level that many people were and are, and David’s books are a journey of discovery into a world I sort of missed out on. It’s never to late to discover new sounds, so thanks for that, David.
Finally, to get the full impact of this book, try reading the final chapter while listening to Linden’s ‘Thank You’ from the ‘Bleached Highlights’ album. I know you won’t want to admit you cried but I know you will, and, between us, you’ll feel better for it.