The villain in Waterline, the second novel from Britain’s Ross Raisin, is almost never referred to by name. It isn’t a specific person, or even an ideology. It is a substance.
Our first hints come some 40 pages in as Mick, a rundown, middle-aged Glaswegian, struggles to deal with the aftermath of his wife Cathy’s death. We know it was premature, but we don’t know exactly what happened. In a quiet moment, Mick opens a letter of condolence, sent by the wife of a former co-worker of his from the old shipyards.
“They should have done checks,” it reads. “For Christ’s sake, John used to come home in his overalls white as a baker and I’d shout at him for getting the dust in the carpets.” Mick remembers finding it in the folds of his clothing, and making snowballs out of the flakes.
It’s asbestos – and the cruellest part is that it killed Mick’s wife, but it didn’t kill him.
Raisin’s first novel, a scary little homing missile called Out Backward, won several awards in his native Britain, but was criminally overlooked in North America. Luckily, Waterline shares a fair amount of that book’s DNA, and only benefits from the expanded emotional palette that comes with Raisin replacing his sheltered teenage hero with Mick, a man who’s got a lifetime of real regrets and emotional baggage dragging behind him wherever he goes.
In fact, it’s precisely how Raisin handles that baggage that makes Waterline shine, and also why Raisin himself deserves such full-throated acclamation. For most of the novel, Mick tries as hard as he can to forget about not just his wife, but also his grieving sons, in-laws, co-workers, and basically anyone else who knows what’s happened.
So he makes a series of rash decisions. He sleeps in the shed. He skips town. He gets a job washing dishes in a hotel in London, then just as quickly winds up homeless, skipping from shelter to shelter and throwing beer cans at swans.
And as long as Mick is in self-destruct mode, Raisin goes bravely with him, keeping every bit of that hidden baggage off-page and out of mind. As a result, the novel feels both visceral and eerily light on its feet.
Waterline doesn’t, technically, use first-person narration, but it’s impossible to separate Raisin’s omniscient narrative voice – rambling, incisive and soaked to the bone in a thick Scottish dialect – from what the inside of Mick’s head must sound like. Even when Mick heads down to London, the accent dogs both him and his story. It’s a sneaky move on Raisin’s part: Language is the one part of Mick’s past he can never shake loose.
There are a few moments when Mick allows the memory of Cathy to come back to him. And just as many times that he tries to conjure a picture of her face, but fails. It’s obvious their lives were completely intertwined; when Mick sees a female neighbour walking down the road, he wonders, “And where is the husband? How come you never see him about? Easy to think the worst sometimes but maybe it’s just that he’s gone off on the rigs or something, you never know. Cathy would have known, sure enough, but otherwise you never know.”
It adds up to a portrait of grief that’s as haunting as it is elegant – and yet it somehow manages to crackle with energy at the same time. This is a hard balance to strike, but Raisin has done it twice in a row.
Michael Hingston is a writer and reviewer based in Edmonton. His blog is Too Many Books in the Kitchen.