A lot of Scottish literature represents bad behaviour as something deeply ingrained in the country’s culture. Trainspotting sees young people take drugs, steal, commit fraud, and fight. Agnes Owens’ Bad Attitudes paints a picture of boys who can’t seem to stay away from violence and mischief. A comprehensive list could stretch from Hawick to Peterhead. Michael Gallagher’s Jamie’s Keepsake is a new example; here children in a housing scheme steal, and fight, and lie. What Gallagher’s work adds to this narrative, however, is good intention.
Set in the 1970s, the novel sees teenager Alex Hannah, freshly recovered from TB, leave Glasgow’s Southern General hospital along with his father and younger brother Forbes. The family joins Alex’s poorly mother and baby sister Sarah at their new home in Hardridge.
Alex is an innocent, decent young man; we see him practically beg his parents for a job, and he expresses desire to treat his mother to gifts. But there’s one gift above all that even his milk round can’t provide for: a portrait titled A Lady in a Fur Wrap, which strikes him because it reminds him of his mum. Hanging in the newly opened Pollok House, the painting seems to Alex to be the perfect gift. He becomes overcome with the desire to steal it, and plans a heist with his friend Jamie.
The narrative moves quickly. Alex is 13 when we meet him, but summer quickly becomes winter and summer again. The pacing is excellent, and while I was occasionally struck by how mature the kids who were just, well, kids, a few chapters ago had become, it never felt forced. That’s how kids grow up: in a blink of an eye.
It is also deeply profound and emotional. Any Scot who reads this novel will probably burst with nostalgia about being with friends, building dens, and sneaking their first few drinks. While the characters make bad decisions (like, uh, planning a heist), you can never really fault them. Their intentions are always pure, and therein lies the tragedy – stealing and pawning are the ways in which these children find themselves caring for their family members.
Jamie’s Keepsake is fun and so very vivid. My sunny days at play are now clear in my head again, and I felt pulled in by every page. This was a book I made time for, because it was something to really savour. I couldn’t just read a chapter here and there; I really felt a need to devour it, like I did those young, long days of summer.