Stevie, the protagonist in Rachel Seiffert’s new novel The Walk Home, is too young to be so self-possessed. Too young to be on his own. Having run away to work in London while still in his teens he has returned to his native Glasgow, Scotland, and lives in the large empty house the team of Polish tradesmen is renovating. He is geographically close to his family; close enough to know he cannot go home. At the beginning, everything had been so different: so hopeful. Stevie’s parents, Graham and Lindsay, were young then too. But they were in love and, when Lindsay found she was pregnant, had set up home together in a neglected apartment on the rundown Glasgow housing scheme. Undeterred, they clean it up, give it a coat of paint, and it was their own place.
Lindsay sees it as the beginning of their journey out of the tenements: a future. But Graham increasingly feels the tug of the insular world in which he grew up, particularly membership of the Orange Lodge band, symbol of the pervasive sectarianism that divides Glasgow almost as rigidly as Belfast where its roots lay.
To earn money, Lindsay join’s Graham’s mum cleaning pubs and houses, often taking the young Stevie with them. Through her, the family reconnect with the reclusive Uncle Eric, declared an outcast by the “fierce” patriarch Papa Robert for falling in love with and marrying a woman from the wrong religion, decades before. Now Eric lives alone, working obsessively on his biblical-themed paintings.
Seiffert, whose debut novel The Dark Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2001, lived in Glasgow for many years, and her skilful use of the vernacular succeeds in honing a vivid sense of place where so often in novels, snippets of local dialect can be an irritating intrusion.
There have been many books set in Glasgow, some traversing the city’s religious divide, but The Walk Home successfully carves out its own space. Seiffert has woven in an interesting contemporary layer with the Polish builders, themselves living in self-imposed economic exile in England for their families “back home”. But Lindsay, who fled Ireland and her father to come to Glasgow, has yet to find “home”. When faced with what she sees as history repeating itself, she again runs away. It is little surprise that Stevie, abandoned, soon also seeks the anonymity of escape. In The Walk Home, Seiffert deftly sums up the complexity of the overwhelming pressures that can fracture families, sometimes fatally.
The Walk Home is published by Hachette Australia and available now.