Rachel Seiffert made an impactful debut when she published her first novel “The Dark Room” in 2001. Not only did the three novellas in this book set in Germany exhibit precise writing and memorable characters, but the book as a whole artfully handled social and political issues across a large span of time. This is a writer who is ardently engaged in the history of the society around her, how the past impacts upon the present and ways in which individuals survive under the pressures of domineering persuasive ideologies. It’s writing which makes me want to learn more about the subjects she references and engage with the issues raised. In Seiffert’s latest novel “The Walk Home” she shifts her focus to the Irish community living in the city of Glasgow. Graham is a character who joins the Orange Order, a Protestant fraternal organisation that is strongly linked to English/Irish unionism, where he is a drummer participating in the Orange walks that march through the city. This is a subject I knew virtually nothing about before reading this novel. I’ve since read up on it to better understand the context of the story. These parades or demonstrations are highly contentious within Glasgow as there have been at times skirmishes between the Orange Order members and Irish Catholics as well as the native Scottish population. To this day, there have been attempts to have the walks banned by some of the residents. Graham finds a strong sense of fraternity in the Orange Order and continues to participate in the walks despite the divide it causes to form between him and his family. The novel raises questions about the ways personal beliefs can estrange people from their families and the way time gradually transforms the meaning of these distant relationships.
The novel tells the story of how Graham grows to join the Order and fall in love with Lindsey, an Irish girl newly immigrated to Glasgow who is estranged from her father. Lindsey forms strong bonds with Graham’s mother Brenda as well as Eric, the black sheep of the family who remained estranged from his own father up until his death because Eric married an Irish Catholic woman. Alongside this story is the present day tale of teenage Stevie who has newly returned to Glasgow after a mysterious period of absence. Stevie is hired as a builder by Polish Jozef who is struggling to earn enough money to establish a better life for him and his wife, an endeavour which has led their relationship to devolve into a tense distant union. Although Stevie clearly comes from the city and should feel a part of it, he hides himself within it. Gradually the reader discovers what led to Stevie’s intense and vividly-portrayed sense of isolation.
This is a short novel and Seiffert skilfully covers a lot of ground, but still made me feel like I closely knew the characters. Brenda is the hard-working glue of the family who struggles to keep everyone in line and together although her relations splinter apart. Eric is an artistic melancholic who casts his family’s personal struggles against the back drop of biblical parables in finely detailed drawings. Malky is a stalwart patriarch who wisely keeps in the background and dispenses sage cautious wisdom: “if you loved, you learned to make allowances.” However, the character that most captivated me is Stevie. Despite being a quiet, almost silent boy whose emotions are also largely clipped out of the narrative, I felt his loneliness and spurred sense of hurt which has led him to break from his family. By portraying his measured deliberate actions, hollowed-out motivation and small tender gestures, Seiffert evokes a personality which feels the heavy burden of a family that’s been shattered by blistering internal strife.
The novel is filled with a lot of ambiguity and sides with no politics in particular. Rather, it opens up an understanding of the way families can be torn apart and the impact of the isolation this causes. When Eric commiserates with Lindsey about the difficulty she’s encountered with her father he observes: “Terrible tae be on your ain. Terrible tae feel that way.” Prolonged loneliness and tightly-held resentment leads to really deep-running grief – not only for the loss of a relationship which was once dear but the loss of time together if things had been different. Seiffert is a writer that gives tremendous nobility to characters caught by both difficult circumstances beyond their control and their own stubbornness. This novel shows how reconciliation and forgiveness are not guaranteed, but they are always a possibility. As she observes in this powerful line: “Hard to be hopeful, but not too much; keeping faith, over the long haul.”