Something I really liked about this trilogy about early twentieth-century Scotland is the way each book builds on the last. They’re all related and the last two books do things they couldn’t do if it hadn’t been for the last book, but they’re all different. The big theme of the trilogy is, on a personal level, gaining experience and what it does to you, and, more generally, the inevitability of change.
Sunset Song, the first novel, is a bildungsroman, really. Chris Guthrie is the teenage daughter of a crofter in 1911 Scotland. She’s torn between identifying as the “English” Chris, who finds reality in the pages of books and wants to be a teacher and as the “Scottish” Chris whose self is always, inescapably, tied up with the land. A big theme of the trilogy is how ephemeral people are compared to the land, which almost negates time. In this first book characters occasionally catch glimpses of figures from another time. In later books there’s a character that’s into archaeology, which speaks of the same need to find the people who are gone in the landscape which is shared with those living. Chris becomes a sexual being, gets married and has a baby. Then WWI happens. It’s nothing much at first, but it changes everything forever. This book is the seeing out of a way of life. Chris’s experiences here are synthesise the archetypal and the personal. I felt it was one of those books that has been done many times but, not least because it was written before it had been done so often, almost fools you into feeling like it’s a first time. Which is how that archetypal/personal experience thing should work. The writing style reminded me of Esther Waters by George Moore, though only in the sense that that novel seemed poised between the Victorians and modernism. This has that same sense of new suffusing the old, and of something preparing to take flight and change into something else. People seem to like this first book the best. It has the most joy and lyricism and sense of timelessness, and the war, though it destroys what the book is about, gives it a good sense of narrative. It has an ending.
The other two books are about what happens after the end. They expand outwards from the small community of Kinraddie where Sunset Song is set. In Cloud Howe Chris marries again and moves to Segget, a larger community. Her husband is the minister and this is a difficult position for both him and Chris, as it places them a little outside their class and community. Robert is an idealist, where Chris is a realist, though her realism is not everyone’s. There is a sense of desperate need for positive change in this book. The central paradox of the trilogy is that this is seen as a doomed mission but one it is vital to embark on. Or at least, Chris’s husband and son find it so. Chris is the real grown-up of the trilogy, able to face reality without placebos like religion and politics. This could be a bit of a tiresome stereotype, shutting women out from the important things while, as consolation prize, suggesting that they’re the more mature for this exclusion. Chris isn’t a boring grown-up to the more interesting men, though. We enter into both mindsets but Chris is the centre. This book is where I decided that I loved the trilogy, because Gibbon is committed. He wants a solution but he doesn’t pretend there is one. The biggest flaw in the trilogy is the presentation of the political ignorance and callousness of the majority. It’s too two-dimensional. In another book it would be a big problem for me but it’s surrounded by enough that’s real.
In Grey Granite Gibbon moves Chris and her son Ewan to a city and really goes for the political stuff. Ewan is not unlikeable but chillingly distant from everyday emotional concerns. When he becomes a Communist it’s a way of becoming human for him, in a way, as he finally identifies as one of everyone else, but we soon see that he’s just as distant as ever really. The flaws of social reform and political ideals are clear here. With Ewan’s quest for justice and equality we have a sense of passion for something even he knows is hopeless. His politics are, apparently, the author’s, but one doesn’t feel these can have provided Gibbon with much consolation. Chris has lost her ability to invest in anyone romantically, to feel really close to anyone. To experience others is important but ultimately one is alone. In a way her life is over in this book, but in another way it’s about how life goes on even when your life is over. There is no real end.
I think this is a book you have to be willing to commit to despite its flaws. Otherwise it would probably seem torrid. But I felt like the author committed to it and that meant a lot. This trilogy creates an impressive sense of progressive experience that comes from that commitment.