Waterline is a hell of a good book, a deceptively quiet, disarmingly slow-paced downward spiral that draws the reader in and deliberately sucks him/her under. It’s a story devoid of melodrama, shouting matches, car chases and fistfights, but one in which the threat of violence is constant while the truly engaging action takes place within the battered and fearful mind of its main character. It takes full advantage of the novel’s possibly-unmatched capacity for exploring the inner consciousness of an individual human being to bring the reader along on a twisted, torturous journey of self-effacement and, possibly, redemption. It is, in other words, a hell of a good book.
The main character is one Mick Little, a shipyard worker from Glasgow who clings to the memories of the good old days because that’s damn near all he has left. Mick learned his trade in the glory years of the Scottish shipyards, when work was plentiful and the unions were strong—before Thatcherism changed everything, before the docks closed down, before the layoffs and the asbestos illness that cut down many before their time. Among those who died was Mick’s wife, Cathy.
As the story opens, Cathy has just been laid to rest and Mick is settling into an uneasy post-matrimonial existence. Jobless and at odds with his in-laws and children, Mick shuffles through his days as best he can, which isn’t very well.
Something has to give in this scenario, and something does: Mick abruptly relocates south, catching a train to London and winding up in an unlikely work situation. He finds himself shoulder to shoulder with the UK’s new working poor: immigrants from Africa and Poland and South America, slaving for a pittance in the belly of the new economic beast.
Even this precarious situation, however, is ordained to collapse before long. The second half of the story chronicles Mick’s long, slow descent into ruin, and if the reader catches on to the final destination before Mick himself does, well, it matters little enough in the particulars. Author Ross Raisin does a masterful job at rendering the broad strokes of Mick’s decline in familiar terms, while making the details unique to his individual story.
The key element here is the narrative voice. Mick’s story is told in third person, but a third person that is so close to his character that it might as well be his own speaking voice. This closeness between narrator and character erodes the normally firm line that distances the reader from the experience. The narrator’s cadences are Mick’s own, and the particularities of a (presumably) Glaswegian accent are thus used to propel the story with irresistible momentum.
Faced with the difficulty in talking to his son, the narration tells us: “No like he’s made such a big effort to talk to the boy; ever, actually. All they years of sitting in the living room… It adds up sooner than you’d think, all that time. You start no to see that she’s the one holding it together, and that without her, what kind of a relationship is there between you? Plus as well the boy as good as thinks that he killed her, which could prove a wee conversational stumbling block.”
Later, visiting Cathy’s grave, Mick undergoes a kind of anti-epiphany: “He tries to imagine her. It’s no easy but. Each time, he ends up standing there just, trying to feel that she’s there, trying to see her face, but it’s no happening, is the truth—he may as well be stood staring at a car engine for all the closeness he’s getting.”
The stark rhythms in the prose form a kind of poetry that is as unexpected as it is beautiful. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the accent—and given the fact that other Glaswegian characters speak with similar cadences and expressions, it is meant to represent a particular type of accent. I can, however, vouch for the effectiveness of the voice as written on the page, both in suggesting character and in effecting a kind of world-weariness that is entirely appropriate to the subject.
As Mick spirals downward, he comes into the orbit of a number of supporting characters, none more memorable than Beans. Discussing him in detail would require the spoiling of certain plot developments, so suffice it to say that he is a vibrantly drawn character who both eases Mick’s difficulties somewhat but also contributes to them at times. Apart from this, Raisin inserts a number of brief passages in a far more removed third-person voice that focus on a number of incidental passers-by who interact with the main story’s action to a greater or lesser extent. The need for these passages seems questionable; the story could have chugged along quite happily without them.
This quibble is minor. Waterline is a very powerful book that draws its power both from the incidents being described and from the voice that describes them. That voice is unique and would likely have made any story it told instantly more compelling. What a joy, then, that it chose to tell this one.