Thaw in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark describes Glasgow as an
unimagined place, a magnificent city whose magnificence goes unnoticed:
Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them
for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited
them in paintings, novels, history books and films… Imaginatively
Glasgow exists as a music hall song and a few bad novels.
With Official and Doubtful, Ajay Close has given the city
a fine novel, a panoramic vision of Victorian splendour, yuppy
bars, Armani stores, gentrified tenements, the medieval chaos
of the Barras market, anarchist subculture, empty shipyards…
Nan Megratta works in the General Post Office, a concrete warren
with an elegant stone facade. She sorts returned letters in the
"Official and Doubtful" department, marooned behind
an iron desk, the city’s detritus falling into her coffee through
the broken pavement glass above her head, nothing to keep her
going but a strong sense of irony.
When an anonymous and threatening letter arrives in Official and
Doubtful with a blurred address and the fragment of a name, Nan
decides to identify the potential targets. There is Danny MacLeod,
Labour MP and "the pride of the Clyde" whose sensuality
soon begins to work on her, a high profile feminist icon whose
star is fading, and a lounge-lizard entrepreneur who is more than
a match for Nan in the repartee department. Nan’s jagged and uncertain
relationships with the charismatic threesome deepen as they work
on her defenses, and the painful story of her violent past begins
Official and Doubtful is a tremendous first novel, passionate
but never polemical, the painful theme of domestic violence undercut
by wit and wonderful dialogue: Glasgow patter par excellence.
Ajay Close is weaker in describing the Byzantine political backdrop
to the story; the plot occasionally creaks and groans. For such
a proudly realist novel, the number of coincidences stretches
credibility, and the central mystery of the blackmail degenerates
into a series of unsatisfying twists and turns. But this is perhaps
because Official and Doubtful is really a book about identity.
The shaky political ground provides background colour as Nan,
provoked by the three MacLeods, shakes off her assumed identity
and fiercely defensive irony, and tentatively begins to live.
Reviewed by Helena Mary Smith