Star rating - 9/10
Ross Raisin's new novel Waterline, like his brilliant 2008 debut God's Own Country before it, is essentially about marginalisation from society. Whereas that was a tale set amongst the wilds of the Yorkshire countryside, about a young man sinking into insanity, this book has a distinctly urban setting. For it is only amid the bustle of big cities where your soul can get truly lost.
Mick was a shipbuilder on the Clyde, in the days when such manufacturing still survived in Glasgow. And it is the deadly fallout from this occupation, in the form of asbestos, which has caused the death of his wife Cathy at the outset of the novel. We get to know Mick immediately Cathy's funeral, with distant family members unconvincingly encouraging Mick to stay in touch afterwards:' "Don't be a stranger now" ...The kind of thing you say to people who are strangers'.
Raisin's description of Mick's inability to cope alone in his home is perfect in its quiet perception. Mick aimlessly gathers piles of stuff together, that only bring back painful memories and cause him to retreat into his shed. He is racked with guilt at the asbestos which he has brought into their lives, and that it was Cathy and not himself who succumbed to its lethal effects. This story is a haunting study into how a life can unravel - how anyone can sink from living an ordinary life into near oblivion in a few easy steps. It is something we often say - it could be any of us - but Ross Raisin describes with pinpoint accuracy how it could actually happen without aim or objective.
His perception into the plight of someone like Mick, who is totally lost without his wife to guide him through the everyday decisions of his life, is astounding. 'Best not to think about the big picture right now, because it's just too bloody big ... and he's too close up to be able to see it properly.' It is achingly sad to see Mick slip day by day into destitution and desperation, despite having loving sons who would have helped - if only they had realised there was a problem.
Mick's dependency on Cathy is replaced by one on Bean, a homeless guy who has a tendency to disappear without warning with bouts of depression, then return without a word of explanation or comment. Their experiences on the streets and hostels of their new world are interspersed with snippets of how they are viewed by the rest of the world. It is a clever device which jolts the reader into their own reality and helps to ask serious questions about how we view homeless people.
This is a seriously moving and relevant story, and is written in a confident, spare style which belies much meaning. With it, Ross Raisin is developing into an extremely accomplished and important writer.