UR-SGEUL, £8.99 PP203, ISBN 978-1900901512

UR-SGEUL, £6.99 PP71, ISBN 9781900901406

Reviewer: Aonghas Macneacail

First, there was no original, adult, Gaelic fiction, in print, and very little previously written. Then there was Ur Sgeul, launching in 2003 with the publication 
of books by Martin MacIntyre and Angus Peter Campbell. Norma MacLeod became the first female novelist to appear, in 2006. Now, there are 24 separate publications (and counting), with one anthology of short stories translated into German. With the exception of MacLeod, and a couple of others, the male voice has dominated, but now two new collections of short stories add lively contributions from the female perspective.

What’s particularly intriguing is that, while Alison Lang and Mairi E NicLeòid draw on different backgrounds, and are stylistically distinctive, their collections echo each other. Both learned Gaelic as adults: Lang from Edinburgh, NicLeòid with the language in her Skye community, and both communicate with natural idiomatic fluency. Both offer fresh perspectives on relationships, and both, intriguingly, adopt the voice of a domestic animal, in Lang’s story, a cat, while NicLeòid explores the life of a sheepdog. Each also examines the malign influence of narrow religious attitudes.

Lang’s Cainnte Na Caileige Caillte (The Lost Girl’s Language) offers twelve stories, ranging from the wolf-reared woman of the title to genocidal West African politics, via a Monica Lewinsky type, to the dystopian possibilities of the digital future. While NicLeòid’s narrative style in Ghlainne Agus Sgeulachdan 
Eile (The Glass and Other Stories) has redolence of the traditional tale, her themes and awareness are entirely contemporary: adultery, illegitimacy, allergies, crossword puzzles and lesbianism are not the commonest subjects of Gaelic fiction.

There are obvious differences – these are creative writers, after all. Lang, who claims no Gaelic background, lives in Edinburgh, and speaks entirely in the female voice. She is perhaps the more cosmopolitan in emphasis, her characters comfortably referencing Proust and Zola, though she knows the traditional Gaelic community as well. NicLeòid, who lives in her native Isle of Skye, also writes drama scripts, and readily adopts both male and female perspectives. That her settings tend to be domestic, whether rural or urban, clearly doesn’t constrain her thematically.

There’s a physical difference between these books as well. Of Lang’s dozen stories, three, exceeding thirty pages, head for novella length, whereas NicLeòid’s eight say all they need in a total of seventy pages. Bulk shouldn’t be equated with overload though, nor slowness with undernourishment: each has her way of delivering a richness of subtlety and detail.

What is intriguing about the conjunction of these two writers is the overlap between their themes. By a curious coincidence, Lang’s narrative 
in the voice of a crafty cat is echoed by NicLeòid’s glimpse of life from a working dog’s perspective, although the material receives very different treatment: where the cat wittily knows which side its fur is stroked on, the dog traces a working dog’s life with reflections on the relationships that develop with both adult and younger members of the family, and how learning can work both ways.

Equally different in structure and tone are NicLeòid’s first story ‘Trom’, on its own an ambiguous word being literally “heavy” but carrying intimations of pregnancy, and one of Lang’s longer stories, ‘Oidhche gun Urnaigh’ (Night without Prayer). The central momentum driving both stories is the malign effect religiosity can have on individuals and their relationships.

But where ‘Trom’ explores one young woman’s predicament, ‘Oidhche’ weaves two contrasting narratives together in 
the character of Diane who observes the church elder Uilleam exiting a massage parlour and who is also suffering sexual abuse at the hands of Aonghas. The other women who feature, elderly upright Oighrig and worldly Rhoda, offer their own kinds of complicity. The fact that 
the abuse amounts to rape within a relationship, which the victim chooses not explicitly to identify as such, or consider reporting, is perhaps the most telling detail.

In ‘Trom’, Catriona, carrying a burden of guilt from her sister’s accidental death in childhood, is reluctant to inform pious and unforgiving parents (someone had 
to take the blame), or fiancé Tormod, of an unexpected pregnancy. A DIY abortion fails, but exposes her condition. A marriage is arranged, but miscarriage brings more shame. There’s a neat twist to the story which suggests that living with such proscriptive pressures brings deeper, more enduring and disturbing consequences.

Both writers offer a satisfying variety of themes, fleshed out in sharply observed detail. Lang sketches a contemporary version of slave labour in ‘Latha Eile san Fhactaraidh’ (Another Day in the Factory), while showing how many kinds of dissembling can lurk behind the phrase ‘A Dh’innse na Firinn’ (To Tell the Truth). If ‘An Téile’ (The Other) provides a glimpse of the silent power of sexual jealousy, ‘An Dealbh’ (The Portrait) shows that the enduring value of art can, given time, overcome professional jealousy.

Both Lang’s ‘Beul gun Phutan’ (Mouth without Button) and NicLeòid’s ‘An Còmhradh’ (The Conversation) have food as a central motif and relationships as a decidedly visible subtext, in the first case a coming to terms with sibling animosities, in the second how to use a gifted biscuit recipe to purloin the donor’s husband. And, as well as creating a powerfully resonant sense of how people actually think, there’s a nice mischievous wit at work in both stories.

There’s much to enjoy in these fresh new collections. The writers show no fear of changing moods, from the emotionally raw through the whimsical and surreal to suitably citric satire. They know how to hook the reader. Several stories in both collections could be developed into longer works, and if NicLeòid, particularly in 
her final story, edges a bit too close to melodrama for comfort, she’s got the vigour of tradition behind her. Both authors have provided enough evidence of their talent to leave us expecting more, but meanwhile, let’s celebrate these eminently nourishing opening instalments.