Archive for the ‘Ever Dundas’ Category


January 16, 2018

Thankfully, Ever Dundas’ Goblin won the Saltire Scottish first book of the year award last year – critic Stuart Kelly had threatened to walk naked down Princes Street if it didn’t. Kelly called the novel “the best debut fiction by a Scottish author since Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon in 2012.” Both novels feature a child protagonist, though in Goblin the eponymous child is a Second World War evacuee who we also meet in the near-present (2011) in a narrative which alternates with her life story. The link is the discovery of a camera, alongside a strange collection of objects suggestive of childish necromancy – “bones, doll parts, a shrew head”. The camera film, once developed, is found to contain pictures of, among other things, the so called ‘pet massacre’ when thousands of domestic animals were killed in the first days of the war. There is, however, also a secret buried with this time in Goblin’s life, a memory she has repressed.

Goblin, as she frequently tells those she meets on her colourful journey through life, is her real name – “Goblin-runt born blue” to give her the full title provided by her mother, who claims she killed the midwife with her ugliness when she was born. Luckily she has her older brother, David, her friends, Mac and Stevie, and, above all, her dog, Devil. Goblin will spend the novel surrounded by animals: as an evacuee she adopts the appropriately militaristic Corporal Pig; returning to London she creates a refuge for bombed-out pets; and in her time with the circus she is frequently found sleeping with the animals (that is, literally). This is not accidental, and there is perhaps an early hint of the reasons (and Goblin’s impressive imagination) when she is playing a game with her friends:

“Mac, you’re Frankenstein’s monsta… I’ll be the Martians, and Stevie’s the Nazis…. Devil’s the humans.”

Among Goblin’s many ‘modern’ attitudes is her view of animals, often regarding them as more ‘human’ than people. As an evacuee she is unable to bear the cruelty of the boy she has been housed with:

“He’d shot a rabbit, but badly. It was wounded, and he was shoving a stick into its wound. I shot it in the head. Blood spattered on John. Barely thinking, I swung the gun over and shot him in the foot.”

(Later, in Poland with the circus, she intervenes when she sees a crowd kicking a dog). It is not shooting John, however, which causes consternation in the Christian household in which she has been placed but the discovery of Monsta, a creature she has created from the aforementioned bones and doll parts, which they regard as a sign of the Devil (not the dog). This will necessitate her return to London (with Corporal Pig) and the separation from her first love, Angel.

By this point it is clear that Dundas is channelling the often maligned picaresque novel, perhaps particularly when Goblin’s adventures literally lead to her running away to join the circus where she discovers a new family, her father and mother having died during the war, and her brother apparently missing. (As she travels with the circus she puts up posters in an attempt to locate him). She also takes a darker look at areas, such as evacuation, we associate with children’s fiction, using other tropes such as the cruel parent as well. However, what most links Goblin to children’s literature is the lack of irony: her innocence is not used as a lens though which Dundas can view her themes. Her wild imagination (as well as Monsta, there are ghosts and a Lizard King and Queen) exists in a no-man’s land between psychology and magic. (Dundas has said it is “purposely ambiguous” and that “realism doesn’t make sense.”)

Goblin is certainly an exhilarating first novel, though the decision to stretch the timeline between 1939 and 2011 also stretches belief as it becomes impossible for Dundas to do justice to Goblin’s later life in the same way as she does for her early years. While the novel is never dull, this leaves the mystery teased at in the present a very long way from the final reveal, and the small sections of prose Dundas must keep inserting to remind us there is a present less and less meaningful Having said that, the reveal in the final pages is accomplished and satisfying.

Without doubt, Dundas has a singular imagination enhanced by a vivid, and frequently visual, voice. It is perhaps no accident that photographs are at the heart of this novel, as there are likely to be many scenes which stay with the reader, not so much as a result of the descriptive power with which they are written as because of the eye for detail Dundas possesses. Her second novel could take us anywhere.