If you are going to read anything this year, read Scabby Queen.
Scabby Queen is a novel for activists, for musicians, for music fans and definitely for all three. Readers of a certain age will feel comforted by references to Q and Select magazines, Poll Tax and Iraq war demonstrations. Readers of all ages will be captivated by its complex protagonist.
The novel centres on fictional, one hit wonder and left-wing activist, Clio Campbell. The genius of her characterisation is the number of stories hers has hints of, from Claire Grogan to Cora Bisset – maybe even Annie Lennox meets Shirley Manson with a bit of Eddie Reader thrown in. Innes has cited Carrie Fisher as the most important inspiration – objectified in her youth, mocked in her maturity, “sainted” after her death.
As Kirstin Innes told the (virtual) Edinburgh Book Festival, Scabby Queen is a feminist novel that shows us that “We prefer our female celebrities to be young and pretty or dead” A novel which centres around one woman never allows us to hear from that woman. Everyone thinks they know her but no one truly does. Like the card game of the same name, she is tossed from person to person and valued by no one.
However, this book absolutely must not be regarded as merely an examination of our attitudes towards female celebrities. It is equal to And The Land Lay Still as a history of Scotland’s recent past and arguably unequaled in its characterisation.
In more ways than one, “Clio Campbell has an… effect on people”.
The novel’s subject and protagonist, Clio Campbell, will, for Bella readers, prove as fascinating as she is infuriating. It is not just that anyone who has been in a activist movement has met Clio, anyone who has been in an activist movement has been Clio.
Clio exhibits many of my best and worst behaviours of an activist. Indeed, Clio exhibits most of the best and worst qualities of the left as a whole. She is principled, yet self-centred. She cares about causes, but not necessarily about individuals. One character, refugee Nancy Okonkwo (a nice Things Fall Apart reference from Innes) is moved to say of Clio that she is “Too shy. She don’t want people to know all the good things she is doing.” yet another refers to “her most self-righteous voice, her perpetual inability to ever have a sense of humour at her own expense.” Innes has crafted a novel nuanced enough to allow us to believe that both characters are telling the truth.
For all of her caring, Clio does not care. She does not care about Ruth, the friend who finds her body (that’s not a spoiler); she does not care about Sammi, whose mental health she ruins. Yet, Clio does care. She cares about independence, she cares about stopping the Iraq war and she cared about ‘rising up’ against the poll tax. For years, I was guilty of caring a great deal about macro issues and not at all about micro ones. In other words, about great causes instead of actual people. I fear this is common in activist circles. Of Clio, one character says: “She’s… physically unable to see that other people might make deeper connections. Might want to put down roots. Belong to something other than a cause.”
The novel is replete with recognisable figures from the left. The squatter scene captures the causal misogyny of the left, “it doesn’t matter what you say your politics are – in here, you’re quite happy to have women skivvy for you.” An early Gordon Duke is a Tommy Sheridan who morphs into Jim Murphy. Does Innes fear that her audience will consist of “comfortable former lefties”? If she does, she knows how to reach them.
The life of Clio Campbell offers many lessons, not all of them palatable. It is simply not sustainable to know a lot of people a little; happiness is to be found in knowing a lot about a little amount of people. Reading it, however, I wonder how much of Clio’s behaviour is actually her fault. Perhaps Clio’s fate was sealed from childhood – neither parent truly committed themselves to her. Her father was absentee and her mother forced her to use a false name and then kicked her out of the house. Despite the best efforts of Donald Bain (yes, Donalbain, heir to looking after Clio), a caring older man reminiscent of Don Lennie, Clio lacks the stabilising influence that is life-long unconditional love. Perhaps the Larkinesque lesson of Scabby Queen, whose final chapter is more chilling than uplifting, is just how much an unloving parent can fuck someone up for life.
That is not to say Scabby Queen is an unrelentingly grim novel. It is not unrelenting anything. Innes’s narrative structure allows her to shift tone and narrator frequently. As an English teacher, I have a great respect for those who write novels that might motivate non-readers. Scabby Queen will engage easily-bored or time-poor readers due to the short, dynamic bursts that create an intriguing whole. These bursts mirror how Innes wrote the novel. With two young children, she had to compose the novel during whatever brief time to herself she had.
Is Clio Campbell a tragic heroine or simply selfish to the last? The question would serve many a book club well. Like many on the ultra-left she forgets the human cost of her actions on those immediate to her (Sammi, Xanthe, Ruth). What use is prosecuting the spy cop if the woman he harmed most is ruined by it? What right does she have to traumatise Ruth just so she can make a political statement?
Clio Campbell is a female protagonist who is, in many respects, a dislikable person. She is definitely a hypocrite. Tragic heroes are often loved, from Hamlet to Gatsby. Tragic heroines, and Campbell is one, are rarely fêted. Our reaction to her confirms one of the novel’s most important ideas: “It is always different for men.”
On the 18th of July, Times Columnist and author of The Art of Coorie, Gabriella Bennett, asked “Where have our great female novelists gone?”. Better minds than mine have ridiculed this question, including this comprehensive rebuttal by Claire Askew. Kirstin Innes has shown just how utterly preposterous the question was at all.