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Official and Doubtful
Ajay Close

Official and Doubtful
Ajay Close
Secker & Warburg
London 1996

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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 to unravel.

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


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