I'm easily scared off a book by dialect.
It took me years to conquer George Eliot's Adam Bede, perhaps it's because the reading slows me down so I have to be in the right mood for some snail's pace progress. But then I coped with The Colour Purple and if we're talking about Scottish dialect I loved Susan Ferrier's Marriage which all felt like enough confidence-boosting positives to launch me on the remarkable journey that has been The Tin-Kin by Eleanor Thom and recently published by Duckworth.
Years ago I emerged from a few weeks in the company of Susan Ferrier talking like a native Scot and likewise with Eleanor Thom I am now fluent in Ingressive Pulmonic Speech and who'd have thought that.
I've spent a wee while trying to perfect the whole Gaelic Gasp.
This is speech pronounced using an intake of breath, like a gasp which can easily be mistaken for shock, surprise or even a heart attack or suffocation which is probably worth remembering next time I'm in Glasgow. Identified in speech far and wide from the Maritime Provinces of Canada to Scandinavia apparently and this all helped me greatly in the reading of this book because I will own up that I read quite a lot of the dialect chapters aloud and you'd have thought me born and bred.
But how on earth has Eleanor Thom, managed to write this?
I remember thinking the same about Susan Ferrier, and The Tin-Kin is quite a mix of the auld and the newer versions depending on whether the voice is old or young and with some 'normal' in between making this book a truly remarkable achievement which I hope gets the recognition it deserves.
Dawn has inherited her Auntie Shirley's flat and leaving her violent ne'er do well partner Winston she takes up residence in this home of her own with her young daughter Maeve. Dawn was mysteriously sent to live with Shirley when her mother had a second baby and was well acquainted with Shirley's mysterious little locked cupboard of secrets though never the contents.Once Dawn has found the key and the cupboard gives up its mysteries, her need to unravel Shirley's past deepened right alongside mine and that was all deepened further as I worked to grasp what initially felt like a foreign language.
I had to concentrate hard as I tried to get my tongue around the language and make sense of it because through a series of flashbacks to the 1950s most of the story is told through the voices of a family of travellers, Auld Betsy, Wee Betsie and Jock interspersed with Dawn's increasing understanding of a past in which she has been an unwitting participant.
Then there's the Batchie Woman and her gift of the visions.
As for ingressive pulmonic speech well it's true, I happened to catch a radio programme from Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis discussing Harris Tweed and as I listened I heard it, I know exactly what it is now and I'd never noticed it before.
Amongst the major achievements of a book like The Tin-Kin for me was an affirmation of a lost way of life, that of the old travellers, frequently judged and maligned and the victims of astonishing prejudice, yet communities alive to and vibrant with their traditions. Above all Eleanor Thom firmly dispels the stereotypical myth that somehow the children of the travellers were neglected. So they might not have seen too much soap and perhaps they had 'beasties' in their hair and been excluded from school for months on end but these people knew how to love their children and that is all in stark contrast to those around them.
In the end Dawn must do what Dawn must do and to say more would be to ruin, but it has been interesting to discover that the book is based on Eleanor Thom's own family history.
Eleanor's mother's family are Scottish travellers and her grandfather shares Jock's fate (which I won't divulge), and it was whilst exploring photos with them and then talking that a degree of shame about their Traveller heritage was revealed. As well as acknowledging and reclaiming that heritage (I think we are back on the subject of bearing witness once more, it's everywhere I look now) Eleanor Thom has carefully redressed the balance of prejudice and restored a degree of pride.
This a book that requires careful and deliberate reading but pays precious dividends if you do, in fact expect a unique experience and if you too fancy emerging as if to the Highlands born, names in comments because Duckworth's have three prize draw copies of The Tin-Kin ready to send worldwide and Rocky will wear a kilt with a be-jewelled dirk tucked in his sock for this one.