Saturday, October 11, 2008

Scots novelist Mina provides 'unlikely' heroine for our time

He stepped towards her, raising his hand
above his head and brought it down hard
on her face. Maureen's teeth sliced into her cheek,
her left eye flashed blankets of white light
and her mouth was suddenly filled with salty blood.

A heavy hush descended in the pub
as each man computed the difficult equation
of why a small woman with blood dripping
from her chin was nothing to do with him

Denise Mina, from her novel, Exile
Carroll and Graf Publishers, 2001, p. 304)

I found out about Denise Mina through National Public Radio. (WLPN, 90.3, here in Nashville). A month or two ago NPR was doing a series on writers whose fiction is set in real cities which are as indispensable to their stories as plot, protagonist and other characters. Mina's city, the setting for her detective novels, is Glasgow, Scotland. Most particularly, it is the Garnethill section of Glasgow, a rough working class area which fell on very hard times as a result of Margaret Thatcher's "economic revolution" in Britain.

By the way, Thatcher, a rigid free market ideologue, was a great pal, political and economic soul mate of Ronald Reagan. The economic policies of these two leaders, often called "supply side" or "trickle down economics" here in the U.S., set the stage for the global financial meltdown we are currently experiencing in part because they insisted on no government regulation. Wiklopedia's entry on
Thatcherism explains these policies and their effects quite well.

I was so impressed by Mina's NPR interview that I quickly ordered her debut novel, Garnethill, from ebay's After finishing that, I ordered Exile from Abebooks. These are detective novels, the first two in what she has called the Garnethill trilogy. The next one is called Resolution. Though my reading habits are quickly changing, I've never been a great reader of detective fiction but I'm pretty sure Maureen O'Donnell, the amateur detective of the Garnethill trilogy, breaks all the molds when it comes to crime-solving protagonists.

In fact, Maureen who is getting beaten up so ruthlessly in the excerpt quoted above has many of the personality characteristics of the classic loser. The words outsider, scapegoat, outcast also come to mind. She is a victim of sexual abuse by her father, a former mental patient, an anorexic chain smoker and a depressive who cries almost around the clock and contemplates suicide regularly. She is also a heavy drinker who appears to be on her way to becoming an alcoholic like her mother. And she curses like a sailor (or like an alienated working class 20-something from any urban wasteland on the planet).

You got to love her, right? Not exactly. I mean all the above traits might summon pity or even sympathy but not admiration. What is so attractive, captivating in fact, about Maurie is that she is still in process; she's still growing and learning, still growing up. Like so many young adults she's still an adolescent emotionally. With good reason. But wounded and miserable and worldly-wise as she is, she has the wisdom of one who is unable or unwilling to deny her feelings. As a result, she is spontaneously compassionate, completely unable (or unwilling?) to write off or abandon the other loser outcasts that come into her life.

I think Denise Mina's Maureen O'Donnell is a novelistic hero for our time which is to say that I think Mina is a novelist for our time. In my first post here on The Postmodern Dilettante, I wrote some of the things that give me heart. When I spoke of
"the voice of a writer, the strength and certainty beneath the words, something about the sound, the quiet sound of the storyteller's voice" I was thinking of Denise Mina. She's written several more novels since the publication of the two I've spoken of here. She's been described as a writer in the tartan noir genre of fiction which is supposedly reflective of Scottish history among other things.

I can see that. Mina's sex abuse victim cum (no pun intended) crime-solver Maureen O'Donnell displays the same stubborn sense of justice, the same bravery bordering on foolhardiness and the same spontaneous courage that characterized the two Scottish heroes portrayed by Liam Neeson in Rob Roy (1995) and Mel Gibson in Braveheart (1995).

The late architect Buckminister Fuller, one of my personal heroes, once wrote the following:
You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Let's say that quote from Exile at the top represents an existing reality, one in which we humans are prone to behave as those men in the pub who sat quietly by while a big bully beat up on a tiny woman. Well, in Maureen O'Donnell, Denise Mina has offered a new model of social behavior for a world desperately in need of one.

Isn't that what heroes and heroines are supposed to be? Desperately needed models of behavior? Said another way a heroine models specific behaviors which reflect the values a specific culture or civilization needs to act on in order to be decent, healthy and good.

And don't be confused here: the specific worthy behavior which Mina's Garnethill heroine models is this: because of her concern for others and despite her loser habits she transcends her victimhood and through the 'adventures' of caring for others discovers herself.


Emmarinda said...

Scotland, to me, was just like a wound that had healed but left a scar. I think it was my favorite place to visit, but being there made me feel sad, especially as I learned all of what went on there. If ever a people's temperament has been formed by terrain and experience, its the Scots.

Emmarinda said...

Oh yeah, Maureen is a gal we probably know a bit too well. In fact, along with sharing some of her other qualities, I've been abused in public at least twice, with much the same response (non-) from the unwitting onlookers. Buy hey, I find being the sorta "loser" to be very freeing, since no one expects much of you. As such, I am able to fly below the radar, pursuing my own happy thoughts and deeds.

Artemisa's Granddaughter said...

Thanks for your comments, Gail. After 2 books I've really gotten attached to the character of Maureen. She's such a feisty little thing she inspires me. She has a little 'larceny' in her soul but seems to be overcoming some of her self-destructive habits. I've no hope for the smoking though. Fags she calls them.

LadyLuz said...

Hi Mai (there's a nice ring to that). Just popped over from elderwoman and am delighted to read your book review - another author to add to my list and try.

You're so right about the Reagan/Thatcher connection - all the ills of the current economic problems in our respective countries can be traced right back to them. I wept when she became P.M. in the late 70s.

Love your other blog Artemisa's Garden and will be popping over from time to time.